The endless hype is finally over. Time for American Pharoah to prove he's an all-time great or become the 14th consecutive Triple Crown contender who couldn't pass the "Test of the Champion."
Late Saturday afternoon, racing's Great Bay Hope will take a 1 1/2-mile lap around gigantic Belmont Park, targeted by seven rivals as a crowd of 90,000 and millions worldwide watch the 147th Belmont Stakes.
It will be trainer Bob Baffert's record fourth attempt to give the sport its 12th immortal after being denied with Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998) and War Emblem (2002). It will be jockey Victor Espinoza's third attempt, also a record.
"I think I'm responsible for the drought," Baffert said Friday morning. "I probably should have won the Triple Crown a couple times."
It's been 37 years since Affirmed swept the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont, and there's widespread belief that his feat will never be repeated.
"All the work is done now," Baffert said. "Once the gates open, the weight will be off my shoulders. Today's [1 1/2-mile] gallop was the last hurdle. He floated over the track and looked like a monster."
But earlier in the week, Baffert admitted: "A mile and a half is foreign for these 3-year-olds and for me. I think we won't know until it happens."
Fatigue is a concern, because it will be the 3-5 morning-line favorite's fourth race in eight weeks. Five of his opponents haven't run since the Derby, and Madefromlucky has been off a month.
The last nine Belmont champions skipped the Preakness, and none was favored. "Fresh horses win the Belmont" has become a trainer's mantra.
If the distance were 1 1/4 miles, it would be very tough to go against him, but Pharoah will have to run a quarter-mile farther than he's ever gone. Greatness can evaporate when legs get weary and rubbery.
Owner Ahmed Zayat is optimistic the colt he bred will earn the white carnations.
"I think American Pharoah is a special horse," he said. "He's the best-moving horse I've ever seen and he does everything so easy. His stride and the way he's going to carry himself will allow him to get any kind of distance. We're going in with no excuses."
For much of the spring, Pharoah trained at Churchill Downs, where his gallops and workouts received glowing reviews. A poll of Churchill's backstretch backed him 11-1. Trainer D. Wayne Lukas thinks "he'll win easy." Jockey Calvin Borel said, "I think he can do it." Trainer David Carroll said, "I absolutely love the horse."
Only trainer Tom Amoss, also a sharp handicapper for TVG, took the contrarian approach. "I think American Pharoah is up against it," Amoss said. "Good horses have been waiting for this spot."
Frosted, second choice at 5-1, and Materiality (6-1) look like his toughest challengers, but the one sure thing about the Belmont is uncertainty. Few touted Tonalist ($20.40, 2014), Palace Malice ($29.60, 2013), Ruler On Ice ($51.50, 2011), Drosselmeyer ($28, 2010), Summer Bird ($25.80, 2009), Da' Tara ($79, 2008) or Birdstone ($74, 2004), but all of them won.
On Tuesday, Justin Zayat, his father's 23-year-old racing manager, discussed the day of destiny.
"Right now, you know American Pharoah is a very good horse," he said. "On Saturday, we'll learn whether he's one of the best of all time and will go down in history."
Notes & quotes: The Empire State Building was illuminated in green and white last night to salute the race.