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"He's [American Pharoah] obviously the real deal. He's the best three-year-old at this point, but the reason they call this the Test of Champions. . .it's a mile and a half and it's always a test, and you know, there's some nice horses that will be testing him." - Steve Cauthen, Jockey on Affirmed

Article courtesy Thorofan

The thirty-seven year drought in Triple Crown winners raises many questions about racing, breeding and training. Most experts believe the drought has been caused by breeding practices where the market driven sport is more about speed than endurance. With the growth of partnerships, ownership has shifted from the wealthy to the average fan who hopes to make a profit or at least break even. That was not the goal of the wealthy owners who did it for the sport.

If we believe breeding is the culprit, we have to explain the strange pattern in Triple Crown winners. The 1930s had three --Gallant Fox (1930), Omaha (1935) and War Admiral (1937). The 1940s has four -- Whirlaway (1941), Count Fleet (1943), Assault (1946) and Citation (1948). Then came a two decade drought --1950-60s. The explanation of breeding and form of ownership doesn't easily explain this pattern.

Then in the 1970s a cluster of winners emerged --Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977) and Affirmed (1978). What changed? There is little evidence that breeding and ownership changed drastically. Perhaps these three were just supper-stars.

Now we are spanning nearly four decades since a Triple Crown winner emerged. Although 13 horses have won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes since 1978, they couldn't win the Belmont Stakes. What make the Belmont Stakes so difficult may be Belmont Park. The mile and half oval with huge sweeping turns is a contrast for horses and jockeys without Belmont Park experience. To get a sense how big it is, its 1 1/8 mile races are one-turn-races run from a shoot. Amazing!

Since horses running in the Belmont have never run a 1 1/2 mile race, distance leaves a question mark. The turns and overall size of the track can disorient riders who have never ridden on the track. Covering the first half mile seems much longer and can cause the less experienced jockey to move to quickly. When the 1/16 pole appear they are shocked to realize they still have a half a furlong to run.

A good example of this was the 2004 Belmont Stakes when Smarty Jones looked like the winner at the top of the stretch, only to become leg-weary inside the last furlong and see Birdstone pass him with ease.

This year may be different for American Pharoah, assuming he can handle the distance. Victor Espinoza, his jockey, will have learned from his losing performance last year on the fan-favorite, California Chrome. Trainer Bob Baffery knows how grueling the Belmont Park stretch can be. Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998) and War Emblem (2002) all with wins in the first two legs, buckled in the stretch to lose the Crown. For Espinoza and Baffert those loses may have taught them how to navigate the monster and win. We will see in a week.

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