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Horse Racing

American Pharoah arrives in New York a Belmont win away from Triple Crown

ELMONT, N.Y. — New York offered up a gloomy, chilly Tuesday afternoon for the arrival of racing's next would-be Triple Crown winner. In fact, the rain intensified just as his trailer rumbled onto the grounds at Belmont Park.

But then, we've learned American Pharoah rather likes the muck. He glided through a monsoon to win the Preakness as the rest of the field crumbled behind him.

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"Yep, this is Pharoah weather, it is," trainer Bob Baffert said as he waited for his horse to show up after a near-two-hour slog from the airport. "He likes wet. But he runs well on everything."

Baffert will take any good omen he can find. He knows how difficult a test American Pharoah will face Saturday when he'll try to become the 12th Triple Crown winner in history and the first in 37 years.

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The focus on the sweet-natured colt is already intense. Scores of reporters waited for him in the rain, pressing in with cameras and microphones as he took less than 10 seconds to move from his trailer to the barn where he'll await the Belmont Stakes.

Owner Ahmed Zayat and his son, Justin, were on hand to greet their horse.

"To own him and to have bred him, it's just an unbelievable privilege," Zayat said. "It's what you dream of being in this game to do. … We can't sleep. It's an unbelievable honor."

Zayat has been in the news for less happy reasons in recent days because of a $10-million libel suit filed against him by the attorney of a Florida man who had previously sued Zayat, alleging $1.65 million in unpaid gambling debts.

Zayat dismissed the allegations as "unbelievable lies from A to Z" and an unfortunate distraction from Saturday's race.

American Pharoah's chances, meanwhile, have improved in recent days with the Belmont field dwindling to eight possible starters. None of the previous 11 Triple Crown winners defeated more than seven horses at Belmont Park.

But he still faces the cruel reality that only one of his opponents, Tale of Verve, ran in the Preakness. And none will be running for the third time in five weeks, as he will. Five rivals from the Kentucky Derby — Frosted, Materiality, Keen Ice, Mubtaahij and Frammento — have rested since May 2, waiting for another shot at American Pharoah. Another challenger, Madefromlucky, will try to snatch the Belmont after entering neither of the first two legs of the Triple Crown.

The challenge of fresher horses has been too great for Triple Crown contenders to surmount in recent years. Since Affirmed accomplished the feat in 1978, 13 horses have tried and failed to match him at Belmont Park, with some of the best fading in the late stages of the 1 ½-mile race.

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Baffert knows this dynamic all too well, having brought three horses to New York with a shot at the Triple Crown. Of those, Silver Charm in 1997 and Real Quiet in 1998 suffered two of the closest near misses in recent history.

Asked what he learned from those defeats, Baffert quipped, "It's been so long, I can't remember."

Then the Hall of Fame trainer, perhaps the most decorated of his generation, grew more serious.

"The Belmont, it's a test of greatness," Baffert said. "So he'll let us know."

California Chrome's co-owner, Steve Coburn, made a stink last year after his horse lost a Triple Crown bid to the fresher Tonalist. He suggested horses shouldn't be allowed to enter the Belmont unless they've run the earlier legs of the Triple Crown. But Zayat said he won't scream injustice if American Pharoah loses to a fresher horse.

"We're going in with zero excuses," he said. "You go in trying to train them for a big day like that. This is the test of champions. He has to earn it."

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American Pharoah has held up well under the strain, gaining weight since the Preakness (a key sign for trainers as they assess a horse's fitness) and pricking his ears during morning workouts.

"He's a happy horse," Zayat said.

The Triple Crown aspirant shipped to Louisville the Monday after his Preakness victory and commenced his preparations for the Belmont, which culminated with a five-furlong breeze Monday in light rain.

American Pharoah walked the shed row of Barn 33 at Churchill Downs on Tuesday morning, then departed the track for the Louisville airport, where he boarded an 11:40 a.m. charter flight — jokingly christened "Air Horse One" — to MacArthur Airport on Long Island.

The horse will take his first steps on the Belmont track Wednesday morning, probably with a light jog. "We won't do much with him," Baffert said.

A few hours later at a noon ceremony in Manhattan, American Pharoah's connections will learn his post position for the Belmont. As Baffert noted, it can't be any worse than the No. 1 post he drew for the Preakness.

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After that, the agonizing wait for Saturday will begin in earnest. Perhaps Baffert will pray for rain.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

twitter.com/ChildsWalker


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