Bob Baffert says he isn’t nervous about Saturday’s Belmont Stakes, when he’ll send out American Pharoah with a chance at joining elite company. He was nervous for Monday morning, however, when the colt who can become the first Triple Crown winner since 1978 turned in his final serious workout before shipping to New York.
American Pharoah once again passed his morning test with aplomb, breezing 5 furlongs in what looked like an effortless 1:00.20 at Churchill Downs. The skies opened up before the workout, but not enough to significantly change the condition of the track. Not that it would have mattered, considering two of American Pharoah’s best races have come on wet tracks.
The Belmont Stakes preview bucket is close to going on hiatus for the season, with our team from This Is Horse Racing headed to New York Tuesday in advance of Wednesday’s post-position draw from Rockefeller Center in Manhattan.
Special thanks to the press office teams at Churchill Downs and the New York Racing Association for the timely updates, including on American Pharoah’s big workout Monday morning, complete with video.
American Pharoah sharp in final pre-Belmont breeze
Under cloudy skies, light rain and 58 degrees, Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner American Pharoah completed his serious preparation for Saturday’s $1.5 million Belmont Stakes with a 5-furlong breeze over a Churchill Downs track rated “fast” in 1:00.20 with Martin Garcia in the saddle.
With a few hundred spectators on hand, Zayat Stables’ homebred son of Pioneerof the Nile came onto the track at 8:30 a.m. ET after the renovation break during the special 15-minute training period for Churchill-based Belmont contenders. He broke away from the stable pony Smokey and assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes at the 5 ½-furlong pole and began his breeze at the 5-furlong marker.
Churchill Downs clocker John Nichols caught the 3-year-old through 1/8-mile fractions in :13, :25 (:12), :36.60 (:11.60) and 48.60 (:12). After crossing the finish line in :11.60 for his last eighth, American Pharoah continued around the turn and onto the backstretch in 1:13 (:12.80) for 6 furlongs, 1:26 (:13) for 7 furlongs and 1:39.60 (:13.60) for the mile.
“Everything went really well today,” Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert said outside Barn 33. “I was worried about the rain a little bit but the track was in perfect shape. He went around there really nice and it sort of let up a little bit when he worked so it went just as we thought. He just kept on clicking right along and so now we just play the waiting game. We’ll ship out tomorrow morning and hope everything goes well when we go to the Big Apple.”
Baffert said Sunday that he is usually nervous going into a breeze and this morning was no exception.
“[I was] very nervous,” he said. “This morning I saw the rain and the track was really dry this morning, so I think the rain [had] just enough moisture in it to make it have some bounce to it. But the track was in excellent condition. I slept pretty well last night. I didn’t think it was going to rain today and then I woke up went ‘Whoa, where did that come from?’ But had I known it was storming that night I probably would have had a hard time. I didn’t want to work on a sealed track.”
As opposed to going into the workout, Baffert isn’t quite as nervous as far as the race is concerned.
“We’re sort of used to running in these big races, so it’s not like it’s the first time for us,” Baffert said. “We know that as long as we’re prepared and we know what we need to do – that’s the whole thing. The only thing that I would get nervous about would be if things aren’t going well, but so far everything has been right on schedule. There haven’t been any setbacks – no hiccups – so that’s the main thing.”
Baffert has been down this road before having trained three horses to win the Derby and Preakness only to come up short in the Belmont (Silver Charm, 1997), (Real Quiet, 1998) and (War Emblem, 2002).
“I know what I’m walking into,” he said. “I had a meeting with everyone yesterday and said that when we get there it’s going to be pretty crazy, but we’ve been through it. Jimmy [Barnes] has gone through it with Real Quiet and War Emblem, but one thing about is that we know what to expect so we’re not going to be overwhelmed by it because we’re used to the big show.
“The vibe here with this horse has been just to enjoy him. They don’t come around very often so try not to get in his way, prepare him the best we can and get him into position to win. So we’re doing that and try to keep everyone updated. Basically everyone wants to be updated to see how the horse is doing and that’s what the media is about.”
Baffert acknowledged how important a Triple Crown on the line is for racing and its potential to attract new fans to the sport.
“I think it’s big for the sport right now,” Baffert said. “It’s about the sport and the Thoroughbred industry. This is a time where people are tuning in to see if it can happen and I think that’s like any sport. People in this country are sports fanatics [and] will tune in to see if there’s something on the line or some historic thing. And now with social media, people will know what’s going on. But I think the Thoroughbred industry needs a jump to get people involved. That’s how you get people involved, getting more people in that maybe buy and breed horses. If you can’t own a baseball team, football team or basketball team, you own a horse. It’s the same enjoyment.”
In other Belmont Stakes news, Donegal Racing’s Keen Ice galloped 2 miles over the main track under exercise rider Faustino Aguilar for trainer Dale Romans. The son of Curlin is scheduled to breeze Tuesday morning and will leave at 10 a.m. for an 11:30 flight to New York. American Pharoah will be aboard this same flight.
American Pharoah’s quest for racing immortality got a little easier Monday when it was announced that Carpe Diem and The Truth Or Else would not participate in the Belmont, leaving the prospective field at eight runners.
Trainer Ken McPeek said via Twitter that The Truth Or Else was discovered with filling in an ankle Monday morning, possibly sustained during a routine gallop last Saturday. McPeek described the setback as “minor” and tweeted that “we will give him the time he needs and bring him back when he’s 100%.”
The two defections leave American Pharoah on the right side of history, as no horse has won the Triple Crown facing more than seven horses in the Belmont. Citation in 1948 and Seattle Slew in 1977 each defeated seven challengers in the Belmont to claim the Triple Crown.
The probable field for the 147th running of the Belmont is: American Pharoah (to be ridden by Victor Espinoza), Frammento (trained by Nick Zito and to be ridden by Mike Smith), Frosted (Kiaran McLaughlin/Joel Rosario), Keen Ice (Dale Romans/Kent Desormeaux), Madefromlucky (Todd Pletcher/Javier Castellano), Materiality (Todd Pletcher/John Velazquez), Mubtaahij (Mike de Kock/Irad Ortiz, Jr.)and Tale of Verve (Dallas Stewart/Gary Stevens).
Carpe Diem not at his best, connections opt to skip Belmont
The connections of Carpe Diem announced Monday morning that they would not run the colt in Saturday’s Belmont Stakes.
Todd Pletcher will now be represented by Materiality and Madefromlucky in the Belmont. With Carpe Diem’s defection, rider assignments have been firmed up: John Velazquez will ride Materiality and Javier Castellano has the mount on Madefromlucky.
Elliott Walden, chief executive officer of WinStar Farm, which owns Carpe Diem in partnership with Stonestreet Stables, said he and Pletcher didn’t believe the colt was at his best for the assignment at hand.
“Todd and I have been talking all of the last week,” Walden said by phone from Kentucky. “We just felt he wasn’t 100 percent going into what is a phenomenal race, with a horse of such high stature. He was maybe 85 to 90 percent.”
Walden noted that while Carpe Diem’s last two works were favorable from a final time perspective, the son of Giant’s Causeway “drifted slightly” in his most recent work here last Friday.
The goal now for Carpe Diem, winner of the Grade 1 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes earlier this spring, is either the Grade 2 Jim Dandy on August 1 at Saratoga Race Course or the Grade 1 Haskell the following day at Monmouth Park.
WinStar still has a huge rooting interest in the final leg of the Triple Crown, as the farm stands Pioneerof the Nile, American Pharoah’s sire.
Zito finalizing shipping plans for Frammento
Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito said Monday morning he is finalizing plans for Mossarosa’s Grade 2-placed Frammento to join his string at Belmont Park in advance of Saturday’s Belmont Stakes.
“We’re trying to coordinate everything by the track with the weather,” Zito said. “It’s either got to be later Tuesday or early Wednesday morning. We’ll figure it out. Everything is good. We’re looking forward to getting down there.”
Frammento has been based at the Oklahoma Training Track in Saratoga Springs since his 11th-place finish in the May 2 Kentucky Derby. He has had three timed works over the surface, most recently a half-mile move in :48.15 May 30, the fastest of 60 horses.
“I’ve just always like the [Oklahoma] track. I’ve said it for years; it’s a good track and a good place to train. There’s a lot to like about it,” Zito said. “The main thing is he came out of the work good and he’s happy. Hopefully we have a couple of good days down there and he’ll do well.”
Zito has started 24 horses in the Belmont but none since Fly Down and Ice Box were second and eighth, respectively, in 2010. He owns two wins – Birdstone in 2004 and Da’ Tara in 2008, both ending Triple Crown bids – and seven seconds.