Rain gives way as sellout crowd set for 147th Belmont Stakes

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Belmont Stakes Day got off to a wet start Saturday as a steady light rain fell throughout the New York Metropolitan area in the early morning hours before giving way to cloudy skies and brief snippets of sunshine.

Only the lightest of rain, more like a mist, remained as cars started to file into Belmont Park through Gate 8 off Plainfield Avenue just before 7:30 a.m. ET.

A big crowd is expected for the 147th Belmont Stakes, a race American Pharoah will try to win and sweep the Triple Crown, and the New York Racing Association already reported a sellout late Friday night. (American Pharoah fans already on the scene at Belmont. Jack Clancy Photo)

NYRA capped attendance for this year’s Belmont at 90,000, a move that came after many fans were caught in heinous traffic snarls after last year’s race when a reported crowd of 102,199 came to see California Chrome’s failed bid for the Triple Crown. The record crowd for the Belmont was 120,139 came out to see Birdstone foil Smarty Jones’ attempt at the sweep.

The anticipation for a possible sweep this year has reached an almost unprecedented pitch and the subject of whether it will be done this year, or perhaps ever again, dominated the narrative since American Pharoah won the Preakness Stakes three weeks ago in Baltimore.

American Pharoah is the 35th Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner with a chance to sweep the Triple Crown. Thirteen have failed since Affirmed swept the series in 1978, the first the great Spectacular Bid in 1979 and most recently California Chrome.

Trainer Bob Baffert and jockey Victor Espinoza sit on the doorstep of history yet again with American Pharoah, who has lost only once in his seven career starts.

It’s Baffert’s fourth attempt at the sweep. He went for it back-to-back years in 1997 and 1998 with Silver Charm and Real Quiet and again in 2002 with War Emblem.

Espinoza was the rider of War Emblem, who stumbled badly at the start and lost all chance, and of California Chrome, who got caught down on the inside and showed the rigors of the series when fourth last year.

“There’s a lot of pressure on these riders that ride the Triple Crown,” Baffert said earlier this week. “Victor might be acting cool but believe me, when he comes out there, he’ll be (nervous). He has to be. I expect him to be nervous. But he knows he has a lot of confidence in this horse.

“I told him, ‘it’s not you, if I don’t have him ready it doesn’t matter what you do.’ My job is if he’s ready, and he runs his race, if he’s good enough, he’ll get it done.”

Seven rivals will line up to see if American Pharoah runs his race. The closest any of those seven have come to American Pharoah is 3 1/4 lengths, that being Wood Memorial winner Frosted, who got that close in the Kentucky Derby. The next closest pursuer is Madefromlucky, who got within 6 1/4 lengths when he was second to American Pharoah in the Grade 2 Rebel back in March.

How about the others? Basically the same story – Mubtaahij (9 1/2 lengths in the Derby), Tale of Verve (7 lengths, Preakness), Frammento (12, Derby), Keen Ice (8 3/4, Derby) and Materiality (7 3/4, Derby).

All that looks pretty good on paper. Baffert knows there’s so much more to it than what’s on paper. He knows American Pharoah will need to be at his absolute best, or at least close to it, to negotiate the 12 furlongs of the Belmont and those seven opponents.

“You still need a great horse,” he said of what it takes to win the Triple Crown. “Those horses that won it, they were great horses. I got beat a nose, I came the closest. You can say, well, this this and this, but (Real Quiet) turned for home and he’s in front by 5. He’s in front before the wire; he’s in front after the wire. That’s a nasty bob.

“Those things happen and you scratch your head, ‘how can that be? Go a mile and a half and you get beat by a couple inches?’ You can’t write that. I just look at it like, the horse ran well. … I’ve been beaten by some ridiculous, tremendous rides by some other jockeys. Chris McCarron on Touch Gold. Gary Stevens on Victory Gallop was another brilliant ride.”