On a chilly, wet afternoon that felt more like November than June, the star of spring arrived on Long Island, four days before his chance to be remembered forever.
American Pharoah emerged from a blue-and-white van at 3:42 p.m. yesterday, 2 hours, 5 minutes after the charter Air Horse 1 from Louisville landed at MacArthur Airport. The Triple Crown contender was led into Barn 1 on Belmont Park's backstretch as approximately 200 people, mostly media, stood in a drenching rain.
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"This is Pharoah weather," trainer Bob Baffert said, flashing back to his superstar's runaways on sloppy tracks in the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park and the Preakness at Pimlico.
According to the Weather Channel, there's a 50-50 chance of scattered thunderstorms for the Belmont Stakes on Saturday, when American Pharoah will go for the first sweep of the 3-year-old classics since 1978. Owner Ahmed Zayat was asked if he's rooting for a wet track.
"If it's fast, fantastic," Zayat said. "But if it's a monsoon for him, he swims. What I don't want is a drying-out track, because it's tough on all the horses."
Trainer John Terranova II and his wife, Tonja, longtime friends and colleagues of Baffert's, are hosting Pharoah this week. Another guest at the Syosset residents' recently reconstructed Triple Crown Hotel is his stablemate Bayern, winner of last year's Breeders' Cup Classic. Since the 1990s, the Terranovas have been boarding Baffert's horses when they ship to Belmont, Aqueduct and Saratoga, and Baffert returns the favor whenever they send runners to Southern California and Kentucky.
"We just moved into the barn in the past couple weeks," John Terranova said. American Pharoah is occupying stall 30 of the swanky, 36-stall facility, located about 50 yards from Hempstead Turnpike.
"Pharoah has never stayed in a barn like this," Baffert said. "This is like the Ritz."
Some horses, like people, do not travel well, but it's become second nature for American Pharoah. Belmont is the sixth track he's visited, and he's 6-for-7 at the others, winning at Del Mar, Santa Anita, Oaklawn, Churchill Downs and Pimlico.
"He's been shipping all over on planes all year," said Justin Zayat, his father's 23-year-old racing manager. "He's got a lot of frequent flyer miles, so it's not a matter of concern for us."
The 11/2-mile Belmont, aka the "Test of the Champion," will be Pharoah's third race in five weeks and fourth in eight. To Ahmed Zayat, all that racing is a matter of concern.
"They're athletes, not machines, and that could take its toll," Zayat said. "But he's happy and coming into the race as well as you could hope. All you want is a happy horse, and this may be the best chance to end the 37-year drought."
After the Preakness, Baffert said he wouldn't bring American Pharoah to the Belmont if he didn't think he was up to it. His brilliant gallops and two strong workouts the past two weeks at Churchill showed Baffert he was as ready as he could be.
"I've never had a horse that's shipped so much and run as well," Baffert said. "He deserves to win the Belmont. He's a remarkable animal."
Notes & quotes:American Pharoah probably will gallop or jog this morning "at about 8:30." . . . Belmont contender Keen Ice breezed a half-mile in 50.20 seconds at Churchill before accompanying Pharoah on the flight from Louisville International Airport. Takeoff was delayed 30 minutes because of inclement weather on Long Island. Upon arrival at 1:37 p.m., Islip Town Supervisor Angie Carpenter presented white carnations to Baffert's assistant trainer, Jimmy Barnes.