May 18, 2015 (c) 2015, The Washington Post.
It has been 37 years since a Triple Crown champion captivated the public. Maybe it's time for a renaissance.
"The sport without a star is not a sport," said American Pharoah owner Justin Zayat, whose colt may just be horse racing's next star.
American Pharoah broke through a thunderstorm to win the 140th Preakness Stakes on Saturday. He ran through a makeshift river along the rail, which was caused by a deluge that forced people in the record crowd of 131,680 to evacuate the infield and grandstand.
The Kentucky Derby winner wasn't bothered by the sudden booms of lightning, his ears protected by large pom-pom earplugs. With a seven-length victory, he didn't hear his competitors rallying futilely on the final turn.
And now racing has its 14th challenger to the Triple Crown since Affirmed won in 1978. During that drought, there have been heart-breaking losses at Belmont Park — which American Pharoah trainer Bob Baffert knows too well. Three of the Derby-Preakness winners that came up short of the Triple Crown were his horses. Silver Charm (1997) and Real Quiet (1998) lost photo finishes at the Belmont; War Emblem (2002) stumbled out of the starting gate.
American Pharoah jockey Victor Espinoza knows the sting, too, losing the Triple Crown aboard War Emblem and last year with California Chrome.
Those past losses won't help Baffert and Espinoza at the Belmont on June 6. Every race is different. Strategies for the Preakness changed when it started downpouring while they waited at the starting gate.
"Sometimes we have a plan, but the weather changed everything," Espinoza said.
After rallying from the middle of the pack in the Derby and winning the Preakness from wire-to-wire, American Pharoah may need another style to take the 1 ½-mile Belmont — the longest major American stakes race.
"About two weeks out, you'll start seeing if it's getting to them a little bit," Baffert said, "and that's why it's so difficult [to win the Triple Crown]."
Unlike past Triple Crown champions who faced small fields in the Belmont, Baffert expects a large one next month. Runner-up Tale of Verve could be the only Preakness horse at the Belmont, but officials say there are six possible challengers from the Derby. That said, perhaps only Frosted (fourth in the Derby) and Materiality (sixth) have a chance.
"Those [past Triple Crown champions] that won it, it's totally different now," Baffert said. "It's like everybody wants to be part of it and full gate or whatever. But it's so exciting.
"I know everybody's sharpening their knives, getting ready."
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Snider, a columnist for The Washington Post's weekday tabloid Express, has covered sports in Washington since 1978.