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As American Pharoah carries weight of sport into Belmont, Triple Crown series again lives up to hype

Victor Espinoza rides American Pharoah, who could claim the Triple Crown with a win in Saturday's Belmont Stakes, to victory in the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico in Baltimore on May 16.
Victor Espinoza rides American Pharoah, who could claim the Triple Crown with a win in Saturday's Belmont Stakes, to victory in the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico in Baltimore on May 16. (WP-Bloomberg)

When American Pharoah breaks from the gate at Belmont Park on Saturday, he'll be carrying more than jockey Victor Espinoza on his broad shoulders. He'll also have to lug 37 years worth of baggage around the track on his 1 ½-mile run for horse racing's elusive Triple Crown.

Everybody knows no 3-year-old has won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes since Affirmed outdueled Alydar in all three races in 1978. But the quest has become a lot more complicated since that wonderful rivalry captured the imagination of the sports world during the Jimmy Carter administration.

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Take nothing away from the three Triple Crown winners of the 1970s, but Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed — the three most storied thoroughbreds of the past half-century — ran in smaller fields in the Kentucky Derby and two of them faced just four other contenders in the Belmont.

Seattle Slew came closest to facing the competitive conditions that prevail this year, running away from a 15-horse field in the Derby and facing seven other horses to win the third jewel.

In the modern paradigm, the Triple Crown candidate has to survive a virtual stampede at Churchill Downs, beat several Derby contenders in Baltimore and then fend off a phalanx of fresh horses in the Belmont. American Pharoah appears to be up to the task after a very impressive performance at Pimlico, but that's what everybody wants to believe every time another horse shows up in New York with a chance make history.

Surely, it's high time to crown racing's first Triple Crown winner of the 21st century, if only so "since Affirmed in 1978" does not have to show up in every story about every horse that wins the Derby and Preakness for the foreseeable future.

California Chrome had it all going on a year ago until he was ambushed in Elmont, N.Y. That led to the infamous post-race tirade of owner Steve Coburn, who charged that anyone who showed up with a horse that was held out of either the Derby or Preakness for the purpose of spoiling his Triple Crown had taken "the coward's way out."

If his tone after his horse finished well behind Tonalist was far from sportsmanlike, Coburn's lament was not without a kernel of truth. Perhaps in a perfect horse-racing world, the Triple Crown candidate would only compete against horses that also had challenged him in the first two races. That would almost certainly lead to more Triple Crown winners — if the goal were to make one of the rarest feats in big-time sports easier to accomplish.

The counterargument, of course, is that the Triple Crown is supposed to be a very difficult and special achievement. American Pharoah will not only join the pantheon of legendary horses that have won it if he can survive the marathon distance and outlast all of his more-rested rivals, but he'll definitely belong in that storied company.

There are some high-quality horses in this year's field, including Frosted, whose late rush carried him from well back to a respectable fourth-place finish in the Derby, sixth-place Derby finisher Materiality, and Preakness runner-up Tale of Verve. There should also be some heat from new shooter Madefromlucky, who finished first in the Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont Park four weeks ago.

If another Peter Pan winner takes the Belmont — as Tonalist did last year — Coburn will be somewhere saying "I told you so," but Pharoah's trainer Bob Baffert is probably too polite to curse the fates or the criticize the format.

The notion that horse racing needs a new Triple Crown winner to prop up declining interest in the sport is worth pondering, but it's probably enough to have exciting horses like Pharoah and California Chrome showing up regularly for the Belmont Stakes with a chance to do something that hasn't been done for a very long time.

Mix in the suspense, the competing storylines and characters like Coburn and Baffert to keep us entertained every year and it's hard to make a case that the Triple Crown series is failing to live up to either its history or the hype.

That said, this year's Belmont Stakes will be a race for the ages if American Pharoah carries the weight of the horse racing world across the finish line and is affirmed as one of the greatest thoroughbreds ever.

See what I did there.

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Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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