Pharoah is equipped, but challenged by historic run
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Jeff Frank - Sports Analyst
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - All was quiet in Baltimore for most of this past Saturday until the rains flooded Pimlico Race Course for the 140th running of the Preakness Stakes. But that did not seem to bother American Pharoah.

The Kentucky Derby winner relished the sloppy going and won the Triple Crown's middle jewel by seven widening lengths. Due to the heavy downpour, the final time of 1:58 2/5 seconds was the slowest Preakness since 1950 when Hill Prince needed 1:59 1/5 to hit the wire first 65 years ago.

American Pharoah's Kentucky Derby also was the slowest in recent times when the race was run over a fast track. Only Charismatic (2:03 1/5) needed more time to finish the race than American Pharoah since Lil E. Tee won the race back in 1992. What makes those numbers so significant is that Charismatic paid $64.60 in 1999 and Lil E. Tee paid $35.60 in 1992. American Pharoah won as the 5-2 favorite.

Therein lies the rub as American Pharoah looks to become only the 12th Triple Crown winner in racing history. No one can deny his talent, but is he worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as Affirmed, Seattle Slew and Citation?

Speaking of Citation, the 1948 Triple Crown winner won the Kentucky Derby by 3 1/2 lengths, the Preakness by 5 1/2 lengths and then the Belmont Stakes by eight lengths (in between the Preakness and Belmont, Citation won the Jersey Stakes at Garden State Park).

What is interesting about Citation is how slow he ran the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. His 2:05 1/5 Derby time over a sloppy track is the slowest in 67 years, and his 2:02 2/5 Preakness over a heavy track is ranked as the slowest ever since the distance was changed to 1 3/16 miles.

I was not around back then, but I am sure many racing writers did not hold those times against him, especially due to the track conditions. And by the way, Citation won the Belmont in 2:28 1/5, which tied the stakes record set by Count Fleet five years earlier.

American Pharoah's Kentucky Derby was not a thing of beauty as jockey Victor Espinoza needed over 30 cracks of the whip to make sure the colt got past Firing Line in the stretch.

However, no one can deny his overpowering Preakness victory, which came as easy as any Preakness anyone has witnessed since Big Brown rolled to a 5 1/4- length score in 2008.

Could American Pharoah be the next Affirmed, Seattle Slew or Citation? Or is he the next California Chrome, Big Brown or Smarty Jones?

American Pharoah has a similar running style to the likes of Citation, Seattle Slew and even Affirmed, who was the last Triple Crown winner back in 1978. In addition, as mentioned in this space last week, that front-running style has been very conducive for Kentucky Derby winners when it comes to winning the Preakness.

Unfortunately, it does not guarantee a spot in the winner's circle at Belmont Park. California Chrome, Smarty Jones and Big Brown all liked to run close to the pace and all three were defeated in the Test of the Champion.

Still, there is one main difference between American Pharoah and those three colts. American Pharoah has more natural speed and has won in gate-to-wire fashion four times in his seven career starts. California Chrome, Smarty Jones and Big Brown combined to win four races gate-to-wire in 25 lifetime starts (prior to the Belmont Stakes).

Outside of American Pharoah's sprint-oriented pedigree on his dam side, the only obstacle for the Bob Baffert-trained colt is the return of both Frosted and Materiality off five-week layoffs.

Don't forget, when Affirmed won the Belmont Stakes, three of his other four rivals all prepped in a race run after the Preakness. Only Alydar, who finished second to Affirmed in all three Triple Crown races, raced three weeks prior to the Belmont.

When Seattle Slew won the Belmont Stakes a year earlier, he and Run Dusty Run (runner-up in the Belmont) were the only two with a 21-day layoff. Three of the eight horses ran just 10 days before the Belmont, two ran 12 days prior and one had a 14-day break.

Times have changed, which is one main reason why it is so difficult to win the Triple Crown.

Consider this statistic: Only nine horses in the last eight Belmont Stakes run with the Triple Crown on the line started in a race held later than the Preakness. The reason that number is high is because the Peter Pan Stakes (New York's local Belmont Stakes prep race) was run after the Preakness up until a couple years ago. The large majority of horses trying to prevent a Triple Crown in those eight years came into the Belmont off much more rest than the Kentucky Derby-Preakness winner.

That will be the case once again as eight of American Pharoah's nine other expected rivals will have had more days off in between races coming into the Belmont Stakes.

THE PROSPECTIVE BELMONT STAKES FIELD

A field of 10 is expected for the 147th Belmont Stakes. Outside of American Pharoah, the only Preakness runner going to New York is second-place finisher Tale of Verve.

Madefromlucky and Conquest Curlinate, the Peter Pan winner and runner-up, respectively, also will race in the final leg of the Triple Crown.

Frosted (fourth in the Kentucky Derby), Materiality (sixth), Keen Ice (seventh), Mubtaahij (eighth), Carpe Diem (10th) and Frammento (11th) all will try one more time to take down the expected odds-on betting choice, American Pharoah.

Belmont Stakes favorites have been flat-out awful of late as the last time the choice won was 10 years ago when Afleet Alex took home the honors as the even- money favorite. Furthermore, the last eight odds-on favorites have lost.

An interesting Belmont Stakes statistic is the top two betting favorites have not finished 1-2, respectively, since 1978, the last year the Triple Crown was won.

Another interesting fact is this will be the third straight year the same horse was favored in all three races. Orb (2013) won just one (Kentucky Derby) of the three and California Chrome (2014) won two (Kentucky Derby and Preakness). Can American Pharoah (2015) win all three?

One thing is for certain: He will be the shortest priced-favorite since Big Brown went off at 3-10 in 2008. Look for American Pharoah to be somewhere between those odds and California Chrome's 4-5 from a year ago. Incidentally, 2008 was the last year there were less than 10 horses in the Belmont field.

Race tactics were huge in the Preakness as Victor Espinoza immediately guided American Pharoah to the lead from the inside post. Even though he had to set speedy fractions of 22 4/5 and 46 2/5 to hold the lead, it was well worth it since inside speed was golden all day at Pimlico.

American Pharoah let the field come to him with a 25-second third quarter, but he extended the lead to four lengths with a furlong to go and then finally to seven lengths at the wire.

Race tactics also will be important in the Belmont. It is fair to say American Pharoah is the best horse in the race. Nevertheless, Todd Pletcher will try to come at him early and soften him up with either Materiality or Carpe Diem. If that happens, look for the other one to possibly reap the benefits later in the race.

The other seven horses will be further back and only two have a legitimate chance of picking up the pieces: Frosted and Mubtaahij, with Frosted being the stronger of the two.

American Pharoah is about 1-5 odds to have the lead at the top of the stretch. However, he is only about even-money to hold it across the wire.

Will he or won't he? We will all find out on June 6 at Belmont Park.

Copyright 2015

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