Belmont Stakes and 6 Theories on 36-Year Triple Crown Drought

PHOTO: American Pharoah passes the 1/8 pole in the home stretch with a commanding lead during the 140th running of the Preakness Stakes, May 16, 2015, at Pimiico Race Course in Baltimore.Getty Images
American Pharoah passes the 1/8 pole in the home stretch with a commanding lead during the 140th running of the Preakness Stakes, May 16, 2015, at Pimiico Race Course in Baltimore.

intro: Misspelled name or no misspelled name, American Pharoah has three decades of futility to overcome Saturday when the heavily favored colt takes off in pursuit of horse racing’s elusive Triple Crown. Thirteen horses have won both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness since Affirmed ran the table in 1978. And not one of those 13 horses has a Triple Crown to show for it.

I’ll Have Another bolted from behind to win the first two races in 2012 but fell off the Belmont card at the last minute because of a tendon injury. Big Brown trounced the Derby and Preakness fields in 2008 but couldn’t even finish the race at Belmont. And on and on, with various theories for the drought.

Here are some of them:

quicklist: 1 Category: The Triple Crown title: Too Many Horses text: This theory is grounded in probability, that the more horses in a race, the more difficult it is statistically to win. "In days gone by, we didn't have a full field come back in the Preakness and the Belmont," Graham Motion, the trainer of Went the Day Well and 2011’s Derby winner Animal Kingdom, told the Wall Street Journal in 2012.

Affirmed faced four horses in the 1978 Belmont Stakes. There are eight scheduled to be in the starting gates this Saturday at Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y., a relatively small field as recent years go.

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quicklist: 2 Category: The Triple Crown title: Too Short Recovery Time text: Three top-flight races in five weeks is a barnyard of stress for any horse, especially with the longer mile-and-a-half Belmont Stakes completing the cycle in New York. "A lot of horses can handle the Derby and the Preakness, and can't handle the Belmont," Louie Roussel III, who was trainer and co-owner of 1988 Preakness and Belmont winner Risen Star, told the New Orleans Times-Picayune in 2010. "The mile and a half is the true test of a champion."

Indeed, there has been a call to stretch the races out over three months. “I think it’s a possibility that it could occur in the next couple of years,” Stuart Janney III, the vice chairman of the Jockey Club and a member of the New York Racing Association’s board, told The New York Times last year.

But not that everyone complains about the grueling schedule. "The Triple Crown is like an Ironman contest,” Roussel said. “This is what makes the thing so wonderful."

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quicklist: 3 Category: The Triple Crown title: Too Many Prep Races text: Renowned horse trainer D. Wayne Lukas has pointed to the increasing importance of prep races to qualify for the Kentucky Derby, which take their toll. "Before, you didn't have to work up so hard in February and March to get ready for the Derby," he told the Times-Picayune.

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quicklist: 4 Category: The Triple Crown title: Too Much Speed Focus text: Lukas, 78, also pointed to breeders who sacrifice endurance for speed. "I think there's a trend to horses that look a little quicker," he said. "Distance horses are longer and leaner."

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quicklist: 5 Category: The Triple Crown title: Too Much Attention text: The Derby and Preakness winner is always a marked colt. And what competing owner wouldn't savor the thrill of spoiling the race for the horse with the most to lose, a coveted Triple Crown.

This year, for instance, neither of two horses - Frosted and Materiality - given the best shot at knocking off American Pharoah raced in the Baltimore Preakness three weeks ago. That kind of rest might work in their favor Saturday.

“It’s going to be tough,” American Pharoah trainer Bob Baffert told the New York Times last month after the Preakness win. “I know everybody right now is sharpening their knives, getting ready.”

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quicklist: 6 Category: The Triple Crown title: Too Little Luck text: Yes, speed is paramount, along with resiliency and a jockey who knows his or her horse. But a touch of good fortune doesn't hurt, either. Derby-Preakness winner California Chrome could have used some at Belmont last year before another horse stepped on the colt’s heel out of the gate and he finished a disappointing fourth in a dead heat, marking the 36th year of Triple Crown futility.

Four would be luckiest number Saturday for Baffert, American Pharoah’s trainer, who has been this close to a Triple Crown with three other horses before coming up short at Belmont.

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