Steve Cauthen thinks it’s long past time for a new horse to join the exclusive club of Triple Crown winners.
The jockey who rode Affirmed to a sweep of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes in 1978 believes horse racing needs a victory by American Pharoah in the Belmont on June 6 to boost flagging interest in the sport.
“I always felt it would happen again,” Cauthen said Tuesday in a phone interview. “It’s long past time.”
The 1970s produced three Triple Crown winners, with Secretariat breaking a 25-year drought in 1973. Seattle Slew followed in 1977 and Affirmed came along the next year, leading many to believe the Triple Crown was an easy feat.
“It’s a tough series and it’s supposed to be,” Cauthen said.
Since Affirmed’s sweep, 14 horses have won the first two legs only to fail or not run in the 1 ½-mile Belmont, the longest and most grueling of the three races run at three different tracks over a five-week span.
Cauthen and other connections of Triple Crown winners are impressed with American Pharoah, who chased down pacesetter Dortmund in the Kentucky Derby and then led all the way in the slop to win the Preakness.
“I just think he’d be coming up to this race perfectly,” said Billy Turner, the only living trainer to win the Triple Crown with Seattle Slew. “It’s easy if your horse is doing well and you’re very confident in his condition and he doesn’t have anything bothering him. If he has things that are bothering him, then the pressure is intense.”
Now 93, Penny Chenery, who owned Secretariat, was at the Derby to see American Pharoah win.
“American Pharoah seems to have a very fluid, easy stride and doesn’t seem to have any weakness to overcome,” she said, “so it’s a question if he can deal with the shortened rotation of these races. We’ll see if he can wrap his mind around it and do it again.”
Unlike Secretariat, American Pharoah isn’t based at Belmont in New York. He comes from California, home of the last two horses to make a Triple try and fail. I’ll Have Another was scratched with an injury the day before the Belmont in 2012, and last year California Chrome finished in a dead-heat for fourth.
In 2008, Big Brown failed to finish the Belmont.
Victor Espinoza, who rode Chrome, will be aboard American Pharoah as the only jockey to have a third shot at winning the Triple Crown. Trainer Bob Baffert is making his fourth attempt at the sweep.
Cauthen believes that experience will help them, especially at Belmont Park, unique among North American tracks for its sprawling size and 1,097-foot stretch.
“It is so easy for guys that don’t ride there regularly to move a bit prematurely. When you’re at the half-mile pole at Belmont you feel like you’re at the three-eighths pole at a regular track,” Cauthen said. “Victor has ridden in the Belmont so I think he’s got his perspective. It’s a question of pacing the race. Every good jockey is usually a good judge of pace.”
American Pharoah’s grand-sire, Empire Maker, won the 2003 Belmont after finishing second in the Kentucky Derby and skipping the Preakness. He spoiled Funny Cide’s Triple try in the Belmont on a sloppy track.
“The best horse is always being conspired against because everybody is trying to figure out how to beat him,” Cauthen said. “If you’re good enough you can overcome it.”
Baffert has kept American Pharoah at Churchill Downs in Kentucky in between Triple Crown races, which surprises Turner, who believes training over Belmont’s deep, sandy surface gives a horse an advantage in the race.
Baffert plans to ship American Pharoah to Belmont early next week, but the horse won’t do much preparation on the track once he arrives.
“Just galloping around the big oval, it’s different,” Turner said. “When you’re used to going over mile ovals, it makes a big difference for the horse and the rider.”
It appears American Pharoah will have nine rivals in the Belmont, including seven that either ran in the Derby or the Preakness and two newcomers to the Triple Crown trail. American Pharoah will be the only colt to have run in all three legs of the series.
“Nobody is going to give it to him and they’re not supposed to,” Cauthen said. “If he wins it, it will prove he’s a deserving champion.”