I remember the last Triple Crown winner — vaguely. I had just graduated from high school — and broken up with my girlfriend. I was going to enroll in college in the fall. I didn't really pay close attention to horse racing at that time in my life. After all, a Triple Crown? What was so special about that? It was the third one in six years.
In hindsight, the duels between eventual Triple Crown winner Affirmed and his rival Alydar were quite special. In addition to producing the most recent Triple Crown winner (in 1978), they were just darn good horse races.
I must admit that I have been pretty busy this year. I have managed to watch the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness as usual, but that has really been the extent of it this year.
Still, I learned a few things. For one, I know — as everyone knows about horses that win the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness — that American Pharoah is a speed horse. But that means nothing going into tomorrow's race. The first two races of the Triple Crown emphasize speed; the Belmont, which will be run tomorrow, is the longest race any horse will ever run, and it emphasizes endurance. It is really more of a jockey's race. The jockey must make critical decisions, such as when to make your move and dig deep for any reserves of energy. You don't really see signs of that in the Derby or the Preakness. They're over in the blink of an eye. But the Belmont is a longer race. The jockey's strategic skills combine with the horse's endurance.
I didn't realize until three weeks ago how good American Pharoah could be on a sloppy track. His victory in the Preakness was dominant in soggy conditions, which might tell us a lot if rain was in the forecast. But there's only a slight chance of rain in Elmont, N.Y., tomorrow. Should be a pleasant day, actually, with a northerly breeze and a temperature in the mid–70s.
But the track should be dry, as it was at the Kentucky Derby five weeks ago. American Pharoah's victory wasn't as dominant in that one.
That was, by far, the more dramatic race, with American Pharoah bunched with two other horses as they sprinted to the finish line. They were so tightly bunched, in fact, that I thought I was about to see my first–ever photo finish involving three horses. But American Pharoah pulled away and was the clear winner.
I've become a bit jaded about the Triple Crown in recent years. We've been disappointed a little more than one–third of the time when the Derby/Preakness winner either did not win or did not enter the Belmont; the rest of the time, there was no chance that the winner of the Belmont would win the Triple Crown because two different horses had won the Derby and the Preakness — and that meant low TV ratings and low attendance.
Last year, with California Chrome making what turned out to be an unsuccessful bid for the Triple Crown, more than 100,000 people came to the track, and things got out of hand. This year, organizers say they're putting a cap on attendance at 90,000. We'll see how that works out.
So will American Pharoah end the drought? He's the clear favorite going into the race, but I have been skeptical in recent years. I have written about that before, and I feel much the same way this time. I doubt that it will happen.
I don't have any overwhelming reason for that. I don't have a horse in mind that I think will win the race, although there are a couple of names I have been hearing mentioned frequently — Keen Ice and Frosted. Keep an eye on those horses. Even though the 1½–mile Belmont emphasizes endurance, I think it is possible that either of those horses could make a move from the start that forces American Pharoah into a speed race. Unless he really turns out to be one of those rare perfect blends of speed and endurance, he will run out of gas before he reaches the finish line.
Here's a look at the last time a horse won the Triple Crown — Affirmed's triumph in the Belmont Stakes in June of 1978.