Winners of horse racing's Triple Crown compose one of the most exclusive clubs in sports, a fraternity with just 11 members—none of them living—that hasn't had an initiate in 37 years. There is but a single requirement for admission: Finish first in the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes in the same year.
Three races at three distances in five weeks; spring in Louisville and Baltimore, turning to the brink of summer in New York, leading to an exalted place in racing history.
The last horse to accomplish the feat was Affirmed, who held off Alydar in the Belmont on June 10, 1978, becoming the third Triple Crown winner in the previous six years. Since that afternoon, 14 horses have won both the Derby and the Preakness; 12 of them failed to win the grueling 1½-mile Belmont. (I'll Have Another was scratched from the race in 2012.) With each near miss, the sport collectively asks if it will ever happen again.
The next to try, in Saturday's 147th Belmont Stakes, will be American Pharoah, the 10th horse in the last 18 years with a chance to end the drought.
Pharoah is a bay colt who won this year's Derby on May 2 at Churchill Downs after a grinding stretch drive, and who splashed to a dominant seven-length victory at sloppy Pimlico two weeks later. He has the requisite qualities to make history, including a long, effortless stride—the kind that makes horsemen swoon—and a pedigree that includes 2003 Belmont winner Empire Maker.
Pharoah is in the capable hands of trainer Bob Baffert, who has brought three horses to New York with a chance to win the Triple Crown, and who, in 1997 and '98, missed by a total of less than a length with Silver Charm and Real Quiet. American Pharoah will be the only horse in the Belmont to have run in all three Triple Crown races.
Among his rested opponents will be Frosted, who finished fourth in the Derby, and Materiality, who finished sixth.
It is a familiar story line and a daunting assignment. Of course, if it was easy, it would have happened again by now. Baffert (white hair) watched American Pharoah gallop on Sunday at Churchill.
Click the image below to check out a slideshow of a day in the life of American Pharoah!
Photos: Simon Bruty for Sports Illustrated