Triple Crown Letdown Fatigue: Who is American Pharoah really running against in the Belmont Stakes?

It’s hard to figure. A few years ago, it seemed like I’ll Have Another had Americans on the edges of their seats…until he was scratched the night before the race. And California Chrome tugged at their heartstrings last year as he made his big play for the Triple Crown by (almost) sweeping the third leg in New York’s Belmont Stakes. And who could forget Big Brown’s two-thirds of the Crown? Or Smarty Jones’ or Funny Cide’s?

Now, this Saturday, we are preparing for American Pharoah to try to do the almost-impossible again. But where’s the excitement?

Outside of the racing community, there seems to be little interest in this potentially-great moment. I’ve had people ask me if the Belmont has been run already. More people than ever told me that they intentionally plan not to watch, citing their painful memories of seeing Barbaro or Eight Belles break down on television as their reasons.

But many people seem not to even be aware that American Pharoah has won both of the first two legs of the Triple Crown. They tuned out after the Kentucky Derby and haven’t tuned back in.

American Pharoah isn’t just running against his three-year-old classmates. He’s running against the memory of Barbaro, Smarty Jones, and even Zenyatta. Notice that at the highest point of his Google popularity, I’ll Have Another still had less Google traffic than Barbaro had at the same time. (The Jurga Report/Google research)

It’s obvious that American Pharoah isn’t just running against Frosted and Materiality and the rest of the top three year olds on Saturday. He’s running against Secretariat. He’s running against Alydar and Affirmed. He’s running against Big Brown, Funny Cide and every other horse who ever came within a mile and a half of winning American horseracing’s elusive crown.

But most of all, he’s running against a skeptical American public that is assuming he can’t do it. Just because, for most of us, we’ve never seen it done in our lifetimes, or at least not since we were kids.

 But he just might beat them all, including us.

What was it about California Chrome? Publicity for his 2014 Triple Crown bid soared; he had the highest Google statistics for any Triple Crown contender in more than 10 years, as he passed Smarty Jones by a nose. How high will American Pharoah go by Saturday’s Belmont Stakes? (The Jurga Report/Google research)

Racing against history is a tall order. Doing it in New York City at the end of a grueling five-week campaign makes it even tougher. But California Chrome held the public’s attention last year. What was it about him? Not since Smarty Jones had a horse held the public’s interest–and the media’s indulgence–at such a level. 

But there were similarities between Smarty Jones and California Chrome. Both were blue collar horses whose place at the top of the heap was unexpected. Their owners were not the typical racing elite. Their pedigrees didn’t automatically assume their place in the Derby lineup. Let’s face it: American sports fans just love to cheer on the underhorse.

So here’s American Pharoah, the horse with the name that is spelled wrong. The horse with the owner who blurts out his emotions. The horse with the trainer who elicits a strong positive or negative reaction from racing fans. The horse with the jockey who is going for a second chance after losing last year on Chrome. The horse with the biggest challenge in horseracing.

But he just might be able to do it, if only because the pressure of all American sportsdom isn’t on him. While attention is deflected by the Stanley Cup and NBA Finals, the French Open and Tom Brady’s upcoming appeal hearing for Deflate Gate, American Pharoah might have the lightest weight on his back of any of the recent horses who has won the first two legs of the Triple Crown.

Everyone is assuming he can’t do it. So far, there has been little this horse can’t do, in any weather, on any track. He may be racing against history, but he only knows that he’s racing against the usual lineup of colts his age.

What most people don’t know about racing is that the tracks are getting better, the equipment is getting better, and the horses this year seem to have fewer soundness issues than in the past Triple Crown races. Are they better conditioned, better ridden, better prepared mentally? 

You can line up all the facts and figures and science and stretch it around that almost-endless length of Belmont racetrack but it still won’t tell you who will win on Saturday. The Belmont is a race that often has an unpredictable winner. And this year, the favorite may be the underdog who pulls off the upset, only because no one’s paying much attention to what could be two and a half of the most historic minutes many people will ever miss.

I’ll be watching, how about you?




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