American Pharoah a star as he tries to make history at Belmont

Will American Pharoah live up to his stardom to complete Triple Crown?

It's not hard to find seasoned observers who will testify to the horse's magnificence.

Rival trainer Dale Romans saw it just a few weeks after American Pharoah's second birthday. "We watched 60 horses breeze that morning and of the 60, he was head and shoulders above the rest," Romans recalled. "His stride was just different. The way he carried himself, you knew you were in the presence of greatness."

But we're now beyond debating American Pharoah's talent. Everyone who cares a lick about thoroughbred racing knows of his gliding workouts, of his commanding triumph over the elements in the Preakness.

"Right now, we know he's a very good horse," said Justin Zayat, the son of American Pharoah's owner. "We don't know if he's a legend yet. Saturday will determine, are you one of the best of all time? Or are you going to go down as a very, very good horse like California Chrome or Smarty Jones?"

Two questions have hovered over American Pharoah's preparations for the Belmont Stakes: Can he triumph where 13 others have failed and become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978? If he does it, would his achievement lift a sport that has lost much of its stature over the last four decades?

Not your 'everyman' horse

American Pharoah carries star quality. He's an impressively muscled animal who trainer Bob Baffert describes as the sweetest elite thoroughbred he has ever been around.

But some observers wonder if his story has captured the public imagination on the same scale as California Chrome's Triple Crown quest in 2014. With his modest pedigree and regular-guy connections, California Chrome carried a populist appeal. American Pharoah is more of an establishment star, backed by the most famous trainer and one of the biggest-spending owners in the sport.

"I think there might be a bit more apathy, because his backstory probably isn't quite as compelling," said NBC analyst Randy Moss. "You have Bob Baffert trying for a fourth time and the litany of near misses, but you don't have that everyman story like California Chrome or with Smarty Jones, that colorful name everyone loved.'

A victory would pack serious financial punch for American Pharoah's connections.

Owner Ahmed Zayat has already sold his colt's breeding rights for a reported $9.8 million with a potential $4 million bonus if he wins the Triple Crown. He struck a record-setting sponsorship deal for the Belmont with the energy drink company Monster Beverage.

American Pharoah would likely also attract bonus offers from track operators around the country, all hoping to lure the new superstar to races later in the year.

But many horsemen, historians and industry analysts agree a Triple Crown would not lift all boats across thoroughbred racing.

"Everybody will pay attention to him if he does it," said Tim Capps, director of the equine industry program at the University of Louisville. "But would it suddenly energize millions of fans? No, I don't think so. Would it change the sport? Highly unlikely."

The impediments are many.

For one, American Pharoah likely won't run many more races. Even if he remains a star the rest of this year, he'll probably exit the public stage by the end of 2016. The great horses of the 1970s — Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed — were unable to stop the bleeding of daily patronage from tracks around the country. With most betting now done electronically, no one expects the attendance trend to reverse.

"If American Pharoah wins, I don't think you're going to get all that fan base again," said longtime New York trainer Nick Zito. "Not at the track, that's for sure."

Others argued that racing officials do a poor job marketing star horses and building events around them.

"I see the racetracks almost de-emphasizing the best horse and the racing," said Dr. Jim Hill, co-owner of 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew. "I would hope that they would use not only American Pharoah but the other really good horses to try and stimulate interest in racing itself, but I'm just not too sure. They certainly haven't demonstrated that in the past, in the recent past anyway."

More importantly, Capps said, the industry's problems are local as much as national. One horse's triumph in New York won't fix outdated facilities in Maryland or settle troubles with casino management in Pennsylvania.

Will drought end?

Of course, those broader questions will be irrelevant if American Pharoah cannot demonstrate his supremacy on the track. Rival trainers agree he's the best horse of the eight who will run Saturday. But Spectacular Bid was the best horse in 1979. Smarty Jones was the best in 2004. Big Brown was the best in 2008.

None could handle the punishing combination of a 1 ½-mile race and better-rested competition.

Moss said the jury is out on American Pharoah.

"I'm not convinced he's much the best horse," the NBC analyst said. "I'm not convinced he's better than Smarty was or better than Big Brown or better than California Chrome. In some respects, we're still looking for the performance that tells us that. We're still wondering."

Casual observers might assume American Pharoah wiped away any doubts when he glided over a virtual bog to win the Preakness by seven lengths. But the skeptics note he didn't have to run very fast to do it. Instead, the rest of the field crumbled behind him. It sounds unfair, but he likely would have earned more faith winning by seven lengths over a fast track.

American Pharoah also won with a relatively sluggish time in the Kentucky Derby where even his connections felt he struggled.

"He's been extremely lucky," said longtime turf writer William Nack, who covered all the 1970s greats. "At the Preakness, it was like God had parted the clouds and said we're going to have a Triple Crown candidate, even if I have to drown everybody else."

Nack described American Pharoah as a "wonderful, pretty horse." He's just not sure he's historically fast.

Others are more bullish on American Pharoah's chances. He has held his weight through the rigors of the Triple Crown schedule, and he turned in a last sensational workout before he traveled from Kentucky to New York on Wednesday.

"American Pharoah is the best horse in this 3-year-old crop," said Romans, who will send Keen Ice against him Saturday. "If everything is equal and everybody runs their best, he's in first. I think he's quite a bit in front of us right now."

In fact, American Pharoah, a 3-5 favorite in the morning line, has already beaten every horse he will face Saturday.

"I just think he's three lengths better than any of his competitors," said Jerry Bailey, a Hall of Fame jockey and Moss' NBC colleague. "I've thought that from the start."

Zayat's greatest horse

The Egyptian-born Zayat, who built his fortune as a beer distributor, made a major splash when he entered the racing game in 2006, spending big to create one of the nation's most talented stables.

For all his good horses, he has never had one like American Pharoah, who was sired by the owner's 2009 Derby runner-up Pioneerof the Nile. Zayat is so taken with the colt's talent he's practically bursting with confidence. Bring on the fresh competitors, he's crowed all week.

"This horse is scary in the way he moves. His stride level is insane," Zayat said. "I've never had or seen a horse who's doing it as easy as could be, ears pricked, enjoying it and so fluid. Like Michael Jordan, he floats in the air. "

Baffert has presented a more restrained face, especially when discussing what a Triple Crown would mean to his legacy as one of the great trainers in history. He has been to this stage three times before, with Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet in 1998 and War Emblem in 2002.

"With Real Quiet, for an instant, I thought he won the race," the white-haired trainer recalled. "You're just sort of stunned that maybe you pulled it off. I don't know how it would feel. I really don't."

He said he wants American Pharoah to win because the horse deserves acclaim, but added he no longer sets goals for his own career.

"Don't believe a word he said," Zayat interjected. "He is the most competitive guy I've ever known in my life. He does set goals. His goals are extremely high and lofty. And he wants to go down in history, in his career as one of the best that America knew. For me, he is the best. Of course he wants to win the Triple Crown. He's just being humble."

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