Is American Pharoah really a lock for the Triple Crown? -

Is American Pharoah really a lock for the Triple Crown?

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(Credit: CNN) American Pharoah heads to his paddock at Belmont Park on Thursday, June 4, 2015. (Credit: CNN) American Pharoah heads to his paddock at Belmont Park on Thursday, June 4, 2015.
Mike Downey

Editor's note: Mike Downey is a former Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune columnist and a frequent contributor to CNN.

(CNN) -- This race has been won by Zev, by Vito, by Stage Door Johnny and by Peter Pan.

This race has been won by High Gun, by Chance Shot, by Needles and by Assault.

And next it will it be won by American Pharoah -- yes or no? Because we who follow fast horses can't wait to know. Because there is quite a lot riding on this.

Saturday is the day for the 147th running of the Belmont Stakes. It is a Long Island, New York, horse race. It is also a LONG horse race. A mile-and-a-half. The Kentucky Derby is a-mile-and-a-quarter.

Those extra hoofbeats involved have been the undoing of many a fine steed. Not since 1978 has a horse been able to win what is known as the Triple Crown of thoroughbred racing, the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont, in that order. Only 3-year-olds get to go, so you get only one shot.

For our newest four-legged favorite, the spellbinding and misspelled Pharoah, it is two down and one to go. The beautiful bay ran as a 5-to-2 favorite in the Kentucky Derby against 17 other worthy horses. He won by a full length. On he moved to Maryland to be a 4-to-5 favorite for the Preakness Stakes two weeks later. He beat the closest challenger there by seven lengths on a wet, sloppy track.

Now the time has come for American Pharoah and his owner, Ahmed Zayat, and his trainer, Bob Baffert, and his jockey, Victor Espinoza, to see if they can go the distance. Go all the way to fame and fortune and all that good stuff. Go into the history books and the pantheon, then go off into the sunset and the pasture to sire little American Pharoah Juniors, for others to saddle up and ride.

A prohibitive favorite he shall be. After drawing the No. 5 post position, a very good place to be, American Pharoah was promptly installed Thursday as a 3-to-5 favorite for race day. Which means you won't be able to make a bundle betting on him unless you bet a bundle. He could end up 2-to-5, or 1-to-5, or, hey, how low do odds go?

Who's going to beat him? Few care or dare to try. Seven others have been entered. They include horses who tried to outrun Pharoah in the Kentucky Derby but ate his dust (Frosted, Materiality, Mubtaahij) and one who tried in the Preakness but ate his mud (Tale of Verve).

OK, so it looks like a lock. It looks like all we need do is wait for Frank Sinatra's version of "New York, New York" to be played to the crowd, then sit back and watch American Pharoah become king of the hill, top of the heap.

Ah, but hold your horses.

We have been here before. Thirteen times since Affirmed took the 1978 Triple Crown, a horse captured both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, whereupon a whole bunch of us plunked $2 or more on him in the Belmont, only to rip up our pari-mutuel tickets in mutual disappointment.

A few could barely run. Spectacular Bid (1979) stepped on a safety pin before the race, ran third. Charismatic (1999) broke a leg bone during the race, was lucky to reach the finish line. War Emblem (2002) stumbled out of the gate, lost to a 70-to-1 long shot. I'll Have Another (2012) didn't even make it to the gate. He got tendonitis and was withdrawn a day before the race.

A few came oh-so-close. Silver Charm (1997) lost by half a length. Real Quiet (1998) lost by a nose. (No, less ... a nostril.) Smarty Jones (2004), undefeated, having just won the Preakness by more than 11 lengths, led and led and led. But like the fable of "The Tortoise and the Hare," proving again that the race doesn't always go to the swiftest, a 36-to-1 underdog outsmarted Smarty, caught and passed him in an unexpected twist.

Eyes popped and jaws dropped. A whopping 120,139 spectators showed up at Belmont for that '04 race. A crowd that size tends to turn out whenever a Triple Crown is possible -- 102,199 came for California Chrome's failed bid in 2014 -- which has prompted Belmont's officials to cap this year's attendance at 90,000. Traffic, food, restrooms, hey, thanks for coming, everybody, but please, not so many!

You gotta like American Pharoah's chances.

He won on a dry track. He won on a wet track. So unless the Weather Channel is predicting a tornado or snow, Pharoah should be good to go. Eleven horses have won the Triple Crown, beginning with Sir Barton back in 1919 and ending with Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed in the '70s.

But unbeatable, no horse is. When he made his debut on August 9, 2014, the word was out that American Pharoah was well-bred and a star in the making, so at Del Mar that day, he went off a 7-to-5 favorite. And where did he end up? In fifth place.

A lot of almost-famous horses have come this far, only to lose in the literally long run. A lot of considerably less famous horses -- Lemon Drop Kid (1999), Sarava (2002), Birdstone (2004), Tonalist (2014), for example -- were given little or no chance to win, but by the end of that mile-and-a-half, the spoils of victory were theirs.

"Go, Pharoah, go," we race fans will say Saturday, but bet on it at your own risk. One thing for sure about sure things: There is no such thing.

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