A shade less than 48 hours since American Pharoah arrived in New York to make his run at racing history and the buzz is really starting to develop at Belmont Park.
The question of whether he can pull off the Triple Crown sweep isn’t exactly everywhere – this is the Big Apple after all – but plenty of folks are still very interested in the quest that’s been downright impossible for more than three decades.
Hundreds of fans ringed the concourse area of Rockefeller Center late Wednesday morning when post positions for Saturday’s 147th running of the Belmont Stakes were drawn and a healthy sized group of photographers and media hit the stable area Thursday as American Pharoah turned in his first gallop on the Belmont Park main track. The Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner didn’t spend much time on the track barely 10 minutes if that, but long enough to make another good impression.
American Pharoah, who only jogged Wednesday alongside trainer Bob Baffert’s pony Smokey with assistant Jim Barnes keeping close tabs as they trekked around once the wrong way, was the first horse on the track after the morning maintenance break at just after 8:45. He left Barnes and Smoke quickly and got right to work.
Baffert watched at the gap with his owner Ahmed Zayat, his wife Jill and son Bode, trainer John Terranova and a few others, a mini somewhat silent oasis after making the short walk from Barn 1 to the racetrack. Photographers walked in reverse, clicking away as the silver-haired conditioner made his way. Reporters listened for any usable sound byte.
American Pharoah looked his usual self on the big track, getting into a steady clip around the first turn, up the backstretch, around the far turn and through the stretch. Jorge Alvarez got him pulled up between the 1 ¼-mile pole and the midpoint of the first turn. They were met by Barnes and Smokey and were off the track and back to the barn quickly.
“So far what I’ve seen is very, very positive,” Baffert said later in the morning. “It looks like he’s doing really, really well.”
Baffert said the entire Triple Crown experience – which includes many media-related and promotional commitments – is much more enjoyable since American Pharoah is doing well heading into the 1 1/2-mile Belmont. He worked the colt twice at Churchill Downs since the Preakness – a half-mile in :48 May 26 and 5 furlongs in 1:00.20 Monday – and American Pharoah is showing no outward signs of fatigue.
American Pharoah’s been going strong since the start of the year, with two back-and-forth plane trips from Southern California to Hot Springs, Ark., for races in March and April at Oaklawn Park. He flew again to Louisville for the Kentucky Derby, then on to Baltimore for the Preakness and ultimately to New York for the Belmont Stakes.
“You look at their body language,” Baffert said. “He looks bright. His eyes, his ears, you can tell when they … when (we) put the saddle on and brought him out, gave him a couple rounds around the barn, you could tell he was really happy. He’s happy, enjoying what he does. He’s a very happy horse.
“You could tell he was enjoying himself out there this morning. That’s the way he runs. I think he was glad to get out there and take a spin around the track. It looked like he handled it very well. His exercise rider said he was pretty tough; he wanted to do a lot more. That’s a very good sign.”
Saturday American Pharoah will try to handle seven opponents and attempt to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. A dozen others tried and failed from 1978 until last year, when California Chrome was tripped up in his quest.
A big crowd is expected at Belmont to see if he can do it. The New York Racing Association expects all 90,000 admission tickets will be sold by the time the first of 13 races gets underway at 11:35 a.m. Saturday.
A very strong card of racing precedes the Belmont Stakes and the Goo Goo Dolls will perform after the last race at 8:12. They’ve earned four Grammy-Award nominations and multiple other music awards since the late 1990s. They won’t be the center of attention Saturday, however.
Win or lose, American Pharoah is the headline act.