Late ship to Belmont gives ‘Pharoah’ connections an easy out

Once a 3-year-old colt captures victories in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, various Thoroughbred owners, turf writers, and everyone in between, begin to weigh-in about the Triple Crown’s structure and why racing a horse three times in five weeks is no longer a healthy format for the modern Thoroughbred.

I tend to take the position of leaving it the way it is. I don’t think there’s enough unity within the industry for the format to ever change. It’s not supposed to be easy, which is why only 11 horses have ever done it.

That said, running a horse three times in five weeks is very difficult; It’s a very demanding schedule for all parties involved. So when trainer Bob Baffert made the call not to send Triple Crown contender American Pharoah straight to Belmont Park following his victory in the Preakness at Pimlico, I found it hard to get on board with his decision.

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L-R: Bob Baffert, Victor Espinoza, Ahmed Zayat & Justin Zayat following American Pharoah’s win in the 2015 Kentucky Derby (John Cox photo)

Instead, the Hall of Fame conditioner decided to send ‘Pharoah’ back to Churchill Downs, where he trained prior to the Preakness, adding an additional element of travel to the horse’s potential Triple Crown equation.

Horses travel on planes pretty regularly, but one has to imagine his chance of injury is increased significantly by taking two additional flights, as opposed to simply vanning American Pharoah from Baltimore to Long Island following the Preakness. Luckily, it sounds like he made it to Belmont safe and sound.

USA TODAY‘s Dan Wolken published a story on Sunday titled “Baffert trains American Pharoah his way for Triple Crown try.”

It’s a good read, where Baffert defends his position of not sending American Pharoah to Belmont Park earlier to train on the New York track prior to competing in the biggest race of his life. Here’s Baffert’s direct quote from the story:

“Every trainer has their own philosophy and I feel more confident doing that than if I was up there sitting around,” Baffert said. “I know what I’m dealing with and what to expect so it makes it much easier to go through this. All my staff, we’ve been through it, so we just treat it like it would be a Breeders’ Cup or anything else, we just stick to the game plan and hope there’s no hiccups.”

Baffert and his team have been through this before. The camp has sent three horses to Belmont with a Triple Crown on the line, and all three have fallen short. I have no doubt Baffert and his staff know what to expect from Belmont Park, but do they truly know how American Pharoah will respond to the track?

If you’ve been through it three times, and come home empty-handed in those three attempts, why not switch up your strategy and send American Pharoah up to New York immediately following the Preakness?

I’m all about promoting Kentucky, but by sending the horse back to Churchill Downs, it is difficult for me to argue that Baffert did everything in his power to put the horse in the best position to win the Belmont Stakes. People will disagree with me, and I sincerely hope I am proven wrong come Saturday, but isn’t the Triple Crown a prize worthy of making sacrifice?

Bob Baffert and American Pharoah (Garry Jones Photo)
Bob Baffert and American Pharoah (Garry Jones Photo)

I don’t even know that Baffert would have to be the one “sitting around” in New York as stated in his quote. Couldn’t he have sent his main assistant, Jimmy Barnes, up with the horse after the Preakness? I understand Baffert has several clients to please beyond the Zayats, so perhaps having his main assistant tending to a single horse at Belmont might not be an ideal situation…

But the Triple Crown is a once in a lifetime opportunity, and if you truly want to do everything within the legal realm to win, couldn’t you come up with an arrangement that works for just those three weeks? Maybe you have to be willing to step out of your comfort zone in order to win the Triple Crown, which could be the same reason why I have yet to see the feat accomplished in my 27 years.

SI.com‘s Tim Layden also wrote a great piece titled, “American Pharoah’s entourage faces very public journey to Belmont Stakes.” Layden’s story brings up the wonderful and seemingly obvious point that horses can’t talk. Here’s a quote:

And because horses do not speak, and because most human journalists are limited in our ability to describe the talents of horses, we talk to the people.

Layden then goes on to describe all the crazy storylines related to the human connections of horses like Funny Cide, Smarty Jones, Big Brown and California Chrome, all of whom were in American Pharoah’s very same position within the last 10-15 years, and did not get the job done in the Belmont.

LaydenLayden points out that whenever a horse wins the first two legs of the Triple Crown, the attention from national and local media skyrockets for the next three weeks leading up to the Belmont. He then says that since horses can’t talk, the media exploits every controversial or relatively interesting story about the horse’s human connections in those three weeks. Spoiler alert; but here is Layden’s final line, which I love:

And late Saturday afternoon, if American Pharoah ends the 37-year Triple Crown drought, it will be all about the horse. Finally and blessedly.

This is a great point, and I think it adds fuel to my fire. Also in Layden’s article, he writes about how once Baffert gets to New York, he “essentially will act as the face of an entire sport for the better part of a week- which he has done on three other occasions since 1997. So he knows what he’s getting into.” He then quotes Baffert:

“By the time we get there,” says Baffert of New York, “we’re all going to just want to run the race.” He looked over Churchill’s historic twin spires and beyond. “But it’s nice up here right now, isn’t it?”

I have zero clue what it would be like to be a Hall of Fame trainer, traveling to New York for the Belmont Stakes with a Triple Crown on the line. So I sympathize with Baffert, because I’m sure having cameras and reporters in your face every waking minute for five plus days would not be ideal for most people. But let’s not forget what the Triple Crown is all about: the horse.

To his credit, I cannot think of another trainer out there who handles the media better than Bob Baffert.

The purpose of my piece is to stir conversation, not to claim that I know what is best for American Pharoah’s Triple Crown chances. I have the utmost respect for the horse’s connections, who clearly all know far more about the game than I ever will.

Yet, my same argument can be made of Southern California-based jockey, Victor Espinoza. The Washington Post did a story about the same time Espinoza was trying to win the Triple Crown on California Chrome this time last year, titled “California Chrome jockey Victor Espinoza has a terrible record at Belmont Park.”

Victor Espinoza waves to fans after winning the 2015 Kentucky Derby aboard American Pharoah (Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Victor Espinoza waves to fans after winning the 2015 Kentucky Derby aboard American Pharoah (Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Espinoza obviously did not complete his quest for a Triple Crown in 2014. The jockey’s Belmont Park-record entering the same week last year, was just two wins out of 67 races, according to the Washington Post.

Espinoza’s record at Belmont Park in 2014 was two wins in eight mounts. According to Equibase, Espinoza won an allowance race and a maiden special weight on the Thursday and Friday leading up to last year’s Belmont, bringing his career mark at the track to four wins in 75 starts.

The Big Apple and “So Cal” are two completely different racing circuits, and perhaps the connections of Espinoza’s agent in New York are few and far between. But we’re talking about a jockey who had won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness twice entering Belmont Stakes week last year. And he was on just eight mounts in three days? Am I missing something here?

In response to the Washington Post story, Espinoza said “That’s my record? I don’t even know. I don’t follow records and I don’t really care about records. I just care about the horses I ride.”

According to his Twitter feed, Espinoza arrived in the Big Apple on Monday, June 1.
According to his Twitter feed, Espinoza arrived in the Big Apple on Monday, June 1.

A horse Espinoza rides has given him a third chance to make history, at a track where, historically, he has performed below his potential. Very few jockeys get one chance to win the Triple Crown. One would think that after two misses, you would take every measure possible to put yourself in the best position to win the big race.

I understand that for Espinoza, it is more difficult for him to leave his Southern California base than it is for Baffert. Baffert could have sent an assistant to look after the horse in New York for the last two weeks, but for Espinoza, moving his tack to Belmont for three full weeks, means the likely forfeiture of several more clients at home.

But could he eventually get those clients back? It would be the same if he suffered an injury for three weeks, wouldn’t it? Wouldn’t other owners and trainers be more likely to give him mounts if he returned home a Triple Crown winning-jockey?

Time will tell the answers, but I guarantee if American Pharoah does not win the Belmont Stakes on Saturday, these questions will resurface. But, as I said, I hope that’s not the case. I am interested in your perspective on this topic, so feel free to weigh in on the comments section below.

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