American Pharoah looks a likely winner in the Belmont Stakes on Saturday, but he’s impossible to bet flat at 3-to-5 odds.
Main challenges come from a trio of horses he has met and defeated in the past. The Baffert trainee will be hard-pressed and jockey Victor Espinosa will have to use all the guile and skills of his exceptional riding career to win the first triple crown of American racing in 37 years.
The eight-horse field consists of six who contended in the Kentucky Derby, won by American Pharoah with a stalking trip and furious stretch run to defeat Firing Line, whose handlers chose to pass on the Belmont after being thoroughly thrashed in the washed-out slop that was the Preakness, finishing half the stretch back, seventh in the eight-horse field.
Of Saturday’s contending field, only Tale of Verve (a deep-closing second in the Preakness, but never a threat to front-running Pharoah) and Madefromlucky were not in the Derby. Tale of Verve’s stunning second was likely doe to the sloppy track and the futile running styles of the other entrants. He should not be close in the Belmont and is not considered a strong contender. Fourth place could be in the cards for him, but no better. Tale of Verve is also the only horse other than American Pharaoh to emerge from the Preakness, suggesting that the connections of the other ponies from that race feel overmatched here.
The other non-Derby entrant, Madefromlucky, has a shot at defeating American Pharoah, though the latter bettered him twice at Oaklawn Park. Pharaoh won the Rebel Stakes and Arkansas Derby in succession. Madefromlucky was a close second in the Rebel, and followed with a fourth-place finish in the Arkansas Derby.
However, Madefromlucky skipped the first two legs of the Triple Crown races, opting for the Peter Pan on May 9th. He won that race in a five-horse field, sitting off the pace and finishing in a gallop to win by a driving length. Incidentally, Madefromlucky earned a Beyer speed figure of 94, the sixth-straight improving Beyer in his racing campaign. The horse needs a good pace scenario, but is maturing gradually, and should be at the top of his game with nearly a month off since his last encounter on the track. Additionally, he owns a win over the surface (the Peter Pan), which suggests that trainer Todd Pletcher has had him pointed for just this upset scenario.
Another horse that should be of concern to American Pharaoh’s quest for the Triple Crown is Frosted, the Kiaran McLaughlin trained stallion that finished fourth in the Derby, but was closing with a flourish. Frosted skipped the Preakness, giving him extra time off to relish the extra distance of the 1 1/2 mile Belmont Stakes. His breeding - by Tapit from Fast Cookie - suggests he will devour the distance and pose a major threat to American Pharoah, himself no slouch in the breeding department, especially with the presence of the grand sire, Pioneer of the Nile on the stud side.
Another possibility arises in Materiality, who will break from the outermost post, often an advantage to an early speed type such as he is. Materiality finished a disappointing sixth in the Derby, skipped the Preakness and shows up here as a main pace threat. Considering that he too is trained by Pletcher, expect jockey John Velazquez to press Pharoah early, setting up a hard stretch rally from Madefromlucky.
Pletcher, who is about as consistent a winner as can be found in the training ranks on the New York circuit. has his two main riders in Velazquez and Javier Castellano, who will be aboard Madeforlucky. Considering that Castellano has been Pletcher’s go-to guy the past few seasons, the tactics are about as obvious as they can get. Press Pharoah early and beat him late with a perfectly-coordinated pair that might as well be racing as an entry. Seeing both of them in the top three would be a fantastic finish, but Madefromlucky finishing a nose, a head, or even a few lengths ahead of American Pharaoh is a distinct possibility.
Of course, man’s best-laid plans after result in surprises from other sources, which is why Frosted looms a large threat here.
The 147th running of the Belmont Stakes should be an exciting event, whether American Pharoah ends the Triple Crown drought (last achieved by the great Affirmed in 1978 - I was there) or another hopeful fails in the ultimate test for three-year-olds.
The play is pretty straightforward, using American Pharoah on all exotic tickets except for radical savers in the unlikely event he is thoroughly trashed by a wicked pace or some other riding misfortune.
Here are the suggestions with running numbers:
American Pharoah (5)
5 over 3, 6, 8
3, 6, 8 over 5
3, 6, 8 boxed.
5 / 3, 6, 8 / 3, 6, 8
3, 6, 8 / 5 / 3, 6, 8
3, 6, 8 / 3, 6, 8 / 5
3, 6, 8
I don’t like to spread it out too far in small fields and a few of those in the field, notably (1) Mubtaahij, (4) Frammento, and (7) Keen Ice appear outclassed by the remainder of the field.
My advice, as always, is, win or lose, live it up. Spend more on booze and fun than you bet on the race. At least that way you’ve got something to remember (or forget… or regret) other than a handful of torn up tickets and a hole indoor wallet.