Every time a Triple Crown hopeful arrives at the Belmont Stakes the participants go around in the same loop, like one of those mechanical horse race games you play for a quarter. You can practically hear the chiming music as they talk, so full of cash-in confidence. There was American Pharoah’s owner Ahmed Zayat, allergic to history, as if it was impossible to recall the plots of the previous races. “I’m confident in American Pharoah because he’s giving me that confidence,” Zayat said. “He’s the best-moving horse I’ve ever seen.”
Trainer Bob Baffert has spent the week with what seems to be an eyebrow fractionally lifted in skepticism, trying to temper expectations, but even this experienced horseman has been inevitably sucked into the optimistic, jingling tune of the unridden race. Thirteen horses since 1979 have captured the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness; none has gone on to win the Belmont. Baffert trained three of them. Yet even he has allowed himself to talk about good “vibes” around American Pharoah and to say, “Hopefully, maybe this is the one.”
Run those races in reverse, back them up around Belmont’s deep grinding mile-and-a-half of sand, and what’s striking is how experienced, sensible horse people allowed themselves to believe despite the long odds and distance.
In 1997 Baffert had his first crack at a Triple Crown with Silver Charm. He was utterly certain his horse had the stamina to win. “If the world were flat he’d run off the end of it,” Baffert said. He was so confident that he predicted the Belmont would be “the easiest of the three,” and jockey Gary Stevens flat guaranteed a victory.
Silver Charm faded over the last 50 yards to lose to Touch Gold.
That didn’t discourage Baffert, who a year later announced even more faith in Real Quiet. “I probably feel more confident this time around,” he said. “When I show up there I don’t want to disappoint all those fans who are waiting for history to be made.”
Real Quiet led by four lengths, only to lose to Victory Gallup in a photo finish.
In 1999 it was trainer D. Wayne Lukas who was sure he had his Triple Crown winner in Charismatic. After all the horse had the blood of Secretariat in his veins and even resembled Big Red in the face, with a white star on his forehead. “The gene pool is kicking on this rascal,” Lukas said.
Charismatic had a slight lead in the final furlong when jockey Chris Antley felt a mysterious absence of surge in his mount. Charismatic had taken a misstep in the stretch and suffered fractures in his left foreleg.
In 2002 Baffert was back in brimming-with-confidence mode over War Emblem. “You’ve all been waiting for that super horse – well, you’ve got him,” Baffert said. Baffert seemed determined to double down on all of his previously crushed hopes. The distance was a “piece of cake,” he said. As for the other horses in the field, “There is not a 3-year-old that can beat him.”
War Emblem stumbled as soon as the Belmont gates sprang open and almost went to his knees. The shaken horse finished eighth, more than 19 lengths behind a 70-1 shot named Sarava.
The mindless optimism hit a peak in 2003 with Funny Cide, the New York-bred bargain horse that, in addition to everything else, was a gelding. Geldings never win Triple Crowns. Still, jockey Jose Santos said, “I’m very confident that you guys are going to see history.” The track oddsmaker made him even money.
Funny Cide was rank from the start, plowed through the deep mud too far inside, and never really had a chance after leading at the far turn, finishing third.
Maybe the biggest heartbreak was Smarty Jones in 2004. The red colt, trained by the modest Philadelphia municipal track trainer John Servis, was unbeaten in eight starts and was such a popular sensation that the buildup to the race caused the normally reserved Servis to let himself, you know. Hope. The horse just had so much talent. “I’m telling you, I haven’t gotten close to the bottom of it yet,” he said.
Smarty Jones set a blistering early pace – only to fade over the last 70 yards as the 36-1 Birdstone rallied to pass him.
It was trainer Rick Dutrow’s turn in 2008 to bray to everyone that Big Brown was mortal lock to win the third jewel of the crown. “These horses just cannot run with Big Brown,” he said. He even predicted his horse would win “by daylight. I just don’t see no dogfight in this race.”
Big Brown came into race day with a cracked hoof, and didn’t fire from the start. At the top of the stretch Kent Desormeaux felt that he was on an exhausted horse and eased up.
By the time California Chrome arrived at Belmont Park last year the drought was 36 years long. That didn’t stop trainer Art Sherman from saying, “I feel more confident coming into this race than I did any race. I’m getting pumped up.”
California Chrome failed to break with his customary energy; it later turned out another horse had stepped on his heel just out of the gate and opened a cut. Anyway, he was no match for the fresher field, “just a little bit empty today,” jockey Victor Espinoza said, as he finished fourth behind the 12-1 winner Tonalist.
They all had this in common: Everyone thought theirs was the horse. Even though only 11 horses have done it since 1918. Even though none has ever raced that far. Nevertheless they all see theirs as the tremendous machine that can carry its speedball energy over a full mile and a half.
But maybe it’s not the silliness of the humans that breeds the belief; it’s the romance of the creatures themselves. All thoroughbreds “in general have too much of every lively quality than too little,” Jane Smiley wrote. Maybe it’s the pure sheen of them, the radiance that provokes even the curdled, satirical and unsentimental to weaken in the presence of a great, hopeful horse. American Pharoah has that shine to him, the combination of handsome aura and easy consuming movement. Baffert just can’t help himself.
“I really want to get it done for the horse,” Baffert said. “This horse deserves to be up there with the great names.”
Fort Worth native Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org