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Another California-trained horse makes run at Triple Crown

Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner American Pharoah pauses as he is led around the barn by trainer Bob Baffert after arriving at Belmont Park in New York on Tuesday.
Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner American Pharoah pauses as he is led around the barn by trainer Bob Baffert after arriving at Belmont Park in New York on Tuesday. The Associated Press

Last year saw California Chrome’s failed moonshot. Now it’s American Pharoah’s turn. And once again, sports fans – as well as casual viewers – are being drawn into a breathtaking bid at making horse racing history.

Will this latest wonder horse win Saturday’s Belmont Stakes and finally end racing’s 37-year Triple Crown wait?

American Pharoah shares several things in common with Yuba City’s California Chrome, including training in the Golden State and jockey Victor Espinoza. Just a year apart, both won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, the first two jewels of the Triple Crown. But Chrome, like a dozen others since 1978, couldn’t complete the sweep.

Horses only get one chance at the Triple Crown, a mission reserved for 3-year-old thoroughbreds. Spread over just five weeks in spring, this classic series demands a young horse to win three grueling stakes at three different distances on three different tracks in three different states, regardless of weather conditions. Only 11 have accomplished the feat and none since Affirmed in 1978. That has made the anticipation only greater.

“Every year we wonder: Will this be the one?” said Bob Baffert, American Pharoah’s trainer. “I start feeling the pressure because I don’t want to let (racing) fans down.”

The field will be finalized Wednesday for Saturday’s Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park, the picturesque old racetrack on New York’s Long Island. American Pharoah, who will be the only horse to compete in all three Crown races this year, is expected to face seven fresh rivals.

Would-be Triple Crown champions have had their hopes dashed by bad rides, bad starts, bad luck and bad weather. Espinoza and Baffert know first hand. This will be the jockey’s third chance at the Triple Crown, including last year’s attempt. It’s Baffert’s fourth try, but first since 2002.

They both know anything can happen. Last June before more than 100,000 fans, heavily favored California Chrome with Espinoza aboard finished in a dead heat for fourth behind Belmont winner Tonalist, a fresh horse that waited for the Belmont before taking on the Derby-Preakness winner. Chrome had an excuse; another horse stepped on his right front hoof as he left the starting gate. He ran the 11/2 miles race on a bleeding foot yet lost by only two lengths.

This “Test of the Champion” remains just as daunting. But many observers think American Pharoah can break the longest drought in Triple Crown history – especially if it rains Saturday at Belmont Park.

Pharoah phenomenon

American Pharoah was born to be brilliant, although he didn’t always look the part. A paddock mate bit off most of his tail when he was 2 years old. By his first start at Del Mar in August 2014, his black tail had grown into a scrubby little brush. But the rest of his muscular body looked perfect.

A Kentucky-born bay colt with regal bloodlines, he was bought back at auction as a yearling for $300,000 by Ahmed Zayat, his breeder. Zayat also raced Pharoah’s father, Pioneerof the Nile, and mother, Littleprincessemma, named for his youngest daughter Emma. He said he bought back Pharoah due to seller’s remorse. The horse trains at Santa Anita.

American Pharoah got his misspelled name via a social media contest for racing fans. His grandfather was Yankee Gentleman. His other grandfather, Empire Maker, won the 2003 Belmont Stakes.

Annoyed by crowd noise, he suffered a little meltdown before his Del Mar debut and finished fifth. Thanks to ear plugs, he hasn’t lost since, winning six consecutive stakes. Although he missed the 2014 Breeders’ Cup with a hoof injury, the colt became the nation’s 2014 juvenile champion.

The injury kept Baffert conservative in his Kentucky Derby preparations for Pharoah, who still wears a protective plate under his left front shoe. Pharoah started only twice before the Derby, both times in Arkansas.

Pharoah doubters point to his Kentucky Derby victory as a possible chink in his Crown bid. As the betting favorite, the horse seemed hard-pressed to win the 11/4-mile Derby five weeks ago. Using his whip 32 times, Espinoza pushed the colt to win by one length over Firing Line in a field of 18.

“The Derby was not his ‘A’ game and we still got through it,” Baffert said.

But Pharoah made the Preakness look like a breeze, thanks to a sloppy track. A massive thunderstorm broke loose in Baltimore less than an hour before the race, creating infield havoc at Pimlico Race Course but perfect conditions for Pharoah. Breaking from the rail, Espinoza shot the colt to the lead immediately in the 13/16 mile race. Pharoah finished 7 lengths in front of long shot Tale of Verve.

What makes Pharoah different is his stride, Baffert said. The horse just floats.

“I’ve never had a horse that moves or travels over the ground like he does,” Baffert said. “That’s his biggest weapon ... There’s something in there that just makes him so different than the other horses.”

Contrast in owners

While California Chrome represented an outsider’s chance at racing immortality, American Pharoah is a Kentucky blueblood with a bi-coastal twist. The contrast at its most extreme can be seen in the owners’ box.

California Chrome, America’s 2014 Horse of the Year, is co-owned by neophyte breeders Perry and Denise Martin of Yuba City and Steve and Carolyn Coburn of Topaz Lake, Nev.

The product of an $8,000 mare and $2,500 stallion, California Chrome was the first horse bred and raced by their Dumb Ass Partners stable. From such humble roots, the chestnut became the first California-born horse to win the first two legs of the Triple Crown and has earned more than $6.3 million.

A New Jersey multimillionaire, Zayat is an outspoken Egyptian-born entrepreneur. He also owns homes in New York, London and Egypt. The son of Anwar Sadat’s physician, he grew up in an influential Orthodox Jewish family in Cairo. He co-owned Egypt’s largest beer distributorship, which was sold in 2002 to Heineken. Zayat still partly owns the glass company that provides the beer’s bottles.

Zayat, 52, invested heavily in horseflesh while always aiming at top stakes. Since forming his stable in 2005, he’s owned as many as 200 thoroughbreds at one time. Not all paid off. He spent $4.6 million for one yearling whose career ended after two starts.

He’s also had great success as well as near misses. Zayat saw his horses finish second in the Kentucky Derby three times before American Pharoah’s victory.

“When it comes to (the horse) business, he’s very emotional, very hyper,” said Baffert, who has trained for Zayat nearly a decade. “He’s fun to win with because he just gets so excited.”

In addition to spending lavishly on horses, Zayat also gambles heavily. Recent reports in The New York Times and The New York Daily News and a lawsuit cite massive expenditures and debts, some to offshore gambling websites. His stable filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2010 to keep his horses from being seized by a bank. Zayat successfully reorganized his racing business and paid off those earlier debts.

After Pharoah’s Preakness win, Zayat sold stallion rights to his star to Coolmore Stud, the world’s largest horse breeding operation. Although final figures were not released, industry reports peg the deal as worth more than $20 million with Zayat retaining an interest.

Close calls

Baffert already has come achingly close to winning the Triple Crown three times. In back-to-back years, the Hall of Famer won the first two legs with Silver Charm (1997) and Real Quiet (1998), then again in 2002 with War Emblem.

In all, he’s won four Kentucky Derbies, six Preaknesses, but only one Belmont.

How close has he come? Silver Charm lost by an arm’s length; Real Quiet by an inch. Both got caught at the finish line after leading late. War Emblem was eliminated at the start.

“That was just bad luck right there,” Baffert said. “Real Quiet and Silver Charm, they could have easily been Triple Crown winners.”

Longest of the Triple Crown races, the Belmont’s 11/2-mile distance worries the trainer.

“We don’t know how far this horse is going to want to go,” Baffert said of Pharoah. “But that’s what this test is all about.”

Baffert, 62, is one of a half-dozen trainers employed by Zayat and is happy to have Pharoah.

“We’ve been on this ridiculous fun high of enjoying the horse this whole trip,” he said.

Just a year after losing the Crown aboard California Chrome, Espinoza gets his third chance, a record for Triple Crown riders. The 43-year-old jockey, a former bus driver in Mexico City, also was aboard War Emblem, who tripped out of the Belmont starting gate and was never a factor.

Baffert said he will leave the Belmont strategy to Espinoza. When the gates open, it will be up to American Pharoah to pass that Test of the Champion. And rain is in the forecast.

“I’m like everybody else,” Baffert said. “When they go in the gate, I’ll be watching. I’m not watching it as a trainer – I’m watching as a fan.”

Debbie Arrington: (916) 321-1075, @debarrington

147th Belmont Stakes

Where: Belmont Park, Elmont, N.Y.

When: Post time 3:50 p.m. Saturday

TV: 1:30 p.m. Saturday, Channel 3

Watch and wager: Cal Expo will host its own Triple Crown party with a live simulcast of the Belmont Stakes plus other races. For $38, patrons can get a reserved spot in the Cal Expo clubhouse, official program and two buffets (breakfast and lunch). Doors open at 9 a.m. Call (916) 263-3279 for reservations. General admission to the simulcast center is $4.

The horse

After losing his debut, American Pharoah has won six consecutive stakes including the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. If he wins Saturday, he will be the first horse in 37 years to win the Triple Crown.

The owner

Ahmed Zayat, an Egyptian-born multimillionaire, has spent a fortune on horses after starting his stable in 2005. He has owned as many as 200 horses at one time.

The jockey

Victor Espinoza, who almost swept the Triple Crown in 2014 with California Chrome, gets a third chance at history. He turned 43 on Sunday and has won more than 3,200 races in his career.