Why is he down in Kentucky and not on Long Island? That's the question many are asking about Triple Crown contender American Pharoah, who isn't scheduled to arrive at Belmont Park until Tuesday, four days before the Belmont Stakes.
Bob Baffert on Thursday explained his decision to train Ahmed Zayat's superstar in Louisville and not give him a timed workout in Elmont.
"I really don't think it makes a difference,'' Baffert said on a conference call. "I've had good luck going from Churchill to Belmont, and I've won a lot of big races up there by shipping off the plane. I did it with Point Given [in 2001] and he won the Belmont by lengths.''
Billy Turner, the only living trainer with a Triple Crown trophy, was based at Belmont when Seattle Slew swept the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont in 1977. On Tuesday he wondered why Pharoah isn't working out there.
"That really, really surprised me,'' Turner said. "Not only the work over the track, but just galloping around a 11/2-mile oval, it's different. When you're used to going around mile ovals, I think it makes a big, big difference for the horse and the rider.''
Giving a horse a workout over an unfamiliar surface was standard procedure for a long time. It's changed in recent years, however. When Funny Cide won the 2003 Derby for trainer Barclay Tagg without a workout at Churchill, it broke a revered precedent.
Longtime New York regular Kiaran McLaughlin trained 2006 Belmont champion Jazil. McLaughlin will try to upset Pharoah with Frosted, who closed strongly for fourth in the Derby. McLaughlin has no problem with Baffert's approach.
"I don't think it matters for American Pharoah,'' McLaughlin said on Thursday. "I think he could run down the street over broken glass. I don't think horses need to run over the track. I don't think having a workout will determine whether he likes Belmont Park or not. Handling the [11/2-mile] distance and the pace are what will be most important.''
Baffert nearly won the Triple Crown with Belmont runner-ups Silver Charm (1997) and Real Quiet (1998), and neither had a timed work at Belmont Park. Silver Charm didn't see Touch Gold rallying in the middle of the track until it was too late. Real Quiet, beaten by a nose, was ahead of Victory Gallop one stride from the wire and one jump after.
"They both ran winning races,'' Baffert said. "They had bad racing luck and easily could have been Triple Crown winners.''
Baffert emphasized if Pharoah "doesn't bring his 'A' game,'' it won't matter how Victor Espinoza rides him. He said until they reach the backstretch, he won't know what kind of horse is under him.
"I know the odds are against us,'' Baffert said. "But he's looking great and I have a lot of confidence in this horse.''
Last year, California Chrome's co-owner, Steve Coburn, ranted against trainers who skipped the Preakness to await the Belmont. Baffert won't.
"If they didn't think they could handle American Pharoah two weeks after the Derby, they can rest up for five weeks,'' he said. "Then they can catch him when he's already pitched eight innings and his fastball maybe has lost a little zip.
"I don't blame them. That's part of the Triple Crown.''
Notes & quotes: The Belmont field remained at 10 with a withdrawal and an addition. Trainer Mark Casse said Conquest Curlinate will be pointed for the Queen's Plate at Woodbine. Kenny McPeek said he'll enter The Truth or Else, a recent allowance winner at Belmont . . . American Pharoah jogged a mile at Churchill.