The Triple Crown is one of the most difficult tests in sports: Three horse races over the course of just five weeks, culminating with the Belmont Stakes Saturday in Elmont, N.Y.
American Pharoah is favored to win, which would make him the first horse to capture the Triple Crown in 37 years. But his rivals have a key advantage: They’ve had extra time to rest, and that’s led to some grumbling inside the sport.
Since 1978, a dozen horses have won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness — only to come up short on the mile-and-a-half dirt track at Belmont Park. That total includes last year’s Belmont favorite, California Chrome, who finished a disappointing fourth.
“I’m 61 years old, and I’ll never see, in my lifetime, I will never see another Triple Crown winner, because [of] the way they do this,” said California Chrome’s owner, Steve Coburn, after the race.
The winner at last year’s Belmont was Tonalist. He didn’t run in the Kentucky Derby or the Preakness, so he had plenty of time to rest before the Belmont. Coburn said that should not be allowed.
“It’s all or nothing,” Coburn said last year. “Because this is not fair to these horses that have been running their guts out for these people, and for the people who believe in them. This is a coward’s way out in my opinion. This is a coward’s way out.”
Coburn later apologized. But he put his finger on something real. Of the seven horses challenging American Pharoah in this year’s Belmont, only one raced in the Preakness three weeks ago, meaning the other horses have had at least two extra weeks to rest.
That’s led some to propose extending the Triple Crown season, so that all the horses might be on more equal footing going into the final race. But the owner of American Pharoah rejects that idea.
“The good ones find a way to win,” said Ahmed Zayat. “My horse is coming in with zero excuse.”
At a press conference this week, Zayat said tradition is important. “What makes this game special is its history,” Zayat said. “I want to be compared, if my horse achieves something, to Seattle Slew and Secretariat. Once you try to play with what happened before, it’s something you don’t want to do.”
The last horse to win the Triple Crown was Affirmed, in 1978, ridden by an 18-year-old jockey named Steve Cauthen.
“I remember right after I won it that people were starting to say the Triple Crown is getting too easy, they’re gonna have to make it tougher,” Cauthen says. “Because people were getting bored when three horses won it in one decade.”
Those winners in the 1970s also included Secretariat and Seattle Slew. Cauthen says there’s a reason the Triple Crown schedule is grueling.
“That’s what proves that a Triple Crown horse is so special, is that he takes on all comers at all times,” Cauthen says. “There’s no question that he’s far and away the best horse.”
If American Pharoah wins at Belmont, he’ll join that very select group of Triple Crown champions. If he doesn’t, you can bet that calls to change the rules will continue.