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American Pharoah faces unfamiliar track in Triple Crown bid

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May 25, 2015

It bears repeating that American Pharoah will be bidding to make history in more ways than one in the Belmont Stakes on June 6. Beyond attempting to become only the 12th to sweep the Triple Crown, he will be attempting to become the first to complete a sweep of the Triple Crown in the Belmont Stakes without having previously raced at Belmont Park.

Affirmed (1978) and Count Fleet (1943) are the Triple Crown winners who had the most previous starts at Belmont Park with five each. Before his Belmont Stakes, Affirmed won a maiden race, the Youthful Stakes, and the Futurity and finished second in the Great American and Champagne at Belmont, all obviously at 2. Count Fleet won the Champagne and an allowance race, finished second in a maiden race, and was third in the Futurity at Belmont at 2 and won the Withers over the track between his Preakness and Belmont Stakes scores in an era when it was fairly commonplace to squeeze in a start between the second and third legs of the Triple Crown. Enjoy Belmont Stakes Betting at Go Horse Betting.

Assault (1946) is next with four previous starts at Belmont. He won the Flash and finished second, fifth, and 12th in three maiden races, all at 2. Seattle Slew (1977), Whirlaway (1941), and Omaha (1935) all had three prior starts at Belmont before completing their Triple Crown sweeps. Seattle Slew made all three of his starts at 2 at Belmont, winning a maiden race, an allowance race, and the Champagne. Whirlaway finished third in the Futurity and fifth in an allowance race at 2 and won an allowance race (yes, an allowance race!) in between his Preakness and Belmont Stakes victories. Omaha finished second in the Champagne and fourth in the Futurity at 2 and second in the Withers right before his Belmont Stakes.

The remaining Triple Crown winners – Secretariat (1973), Citation (1948), War Admiral (1937), Gallant Fox (1930), and Sir Barton (1919) – all made two Belmont starts prior to their Belmont Stakes wins. Secretariat won the Futurity and finished first in the Champagne (he was subsequently disqualified and placed second) at 2. Citation won the Futurity and Futurity Trial, also at 2. War Admiral won an allowance and finished third in the National Stallion at 2. Gallant Fox finished second in an allowance and third in the Futurity, also at 2. And Sir Barton finished second in the Futurity at 2 and won the Withers in between his Preakness and Belmont Stakes victories.

Nowadays, the only way a potential Triple Crown winner would have a previous start at Belmont would be as a 2-year-old. But I find the following interesting, as I did when I first brought this topic up in this space a couple of years ago: Even in a era when there were no reservations about getting in a start between the Preakness and Belmont and with over-the-Belmont-track options existing back then, all 11 Triple Crown winners still had 2-year-old starts at Belmont, with 10 of them having two or more starts. And none were based full time in New York as 2-year-olds, either. Citation, Count Fleet, Whirlaway, and War Admiral were not exclusively New York-based as 2-year-olds.

Now, you could say that a big reason why all of our Triple Crown winners had previous starts at Belmont Park is as simple as all of those horses were good and/or well connected from the get go, and Belmont Park had the prestigious races for these horses to compete in, so it was only natural that they did. And there probably is a good bit of truth in that. But what gives this little (or maybe not so little) tidbit some weight is the records of recent horses who attempted a Triple Crown sweep in the Belmont and failed.

The last 10 horses who failed to complete Triple Crown sweeps in the Belmont Stakes were Alysheba (1987), Sunday Silence (1989), Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998), Charismatic (1999), War Emblem (2002), Funny Cide (2003), Smarty Jones (2004), Big Brown (2008), and California Chrome (2014). Obviously, I’m not including I’ll Have Another (2012), who failed to complete a Triple Crown sweep in the Belmont because he did not start in it.

Anyway, of those most recent 10 who failed to finish a sweep of the Triple Crown in the Belmont, only one – one – previously raced at Belmont. That was Funny Cide, who won three races at Belmont at 2 but all over New York-breds. And while a small few of those 10 (three maybe?) ran well in defeat in their Belmonts, the fact remains – they did not win. For me, the big takeaway here is something that is known to anyone with even the most casual experience with Belmont Park. Belmont is perhaps the most unique track in the country, with a backstretch so long that it never seems to end. It just hazily shimmers in the distance like a straight interstate highway in Florida on a hot day. It also has a surface that is naturally very dry, cuppy, and tiring unless it is heavily watered. Prior experience there doesn’t have to be a deal breaker, but it is certainly helpful for the most basic of reasons.

And what does this all mean for American Pharoah? Well, I guess it could be construed as a plus for him that only three of the current 11 Belmont Stakes Contenders – Conquest Curlinate, Frosted, and Madefromlucky – have prior experience over the track. That means eight others are, in this case, in the same boat as American Pharoah, and that includes Materiality, who trains at Belmont but never has raced there. But my feeling right now is if American Pharoah is derailed June 6, it will be because he will be making his fourth start in eight weeks as much as anything else.

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