ELMONT, N.Y. - Triple Crown hopeful American Pharoah went out onto a sloppy Belmont Park main track for the first time this morning to stretch his legs and become acclimated with his new surroundings as he prepares for Saturday's Grade 1, $1.5 million Belmont Stakes as part of the Belmont Stakes Racing Festival presented by DraftKings, and perhaps a date with destiny.
Under the watchful eye of Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, who arrived in New York Tuesday, the Zayat Stables homebred son of Pioneerof the Nile had an uneventful and easy jog around the racing strip under regular exercise rider Jorge Alvarez.
"He took him out to the three-eights, or the half mile pole and he was so strong when he got onto the track he was just marching right along. He was really full of himself so I called an audible on the radio with Jimmy (Barnes, assistant trainer) because he was pretty strong so we let him jog all the way around," Baffert said of the dual Classic winner, who arrived on the grounds late Tuesday afternoon from Kentucky. "It was better off that way. Otherwise he would have wanted to gallop and get too tough down the stretch."
Reigning 2-year-old male champion American Pharoah, undefeated in 2015 while winning the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes and Grade 1 Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park, the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby at Churchill, and the Grade 1 Preakness at Pimlico Race Course, had no trouble whatsoever taking to the track known as "Big Sandy."
"He looked happy out there and that's the whole key. Keep them happy," Baffert said. "On his first day back he wants to do a little bit more and he kicked back all day yesterday. I just love the way how when he got on the track he was marching along like that, and that's a good sign we wanted to see."
Baffert said that American Pharoah has settled comfortably into his new surroundings in the barn of John Terranova and could not be doing any better.
"He loves it here. These stalls are so nice and big. He likes it here. He's in the Big Apple now," he said. "You know what? Things can change overnight, but the way he feels, the way he's trained, right now everything is going really smoothly. I like what I see."
American Pharoah, who is attempting to become only the 12th Triple Crown winner and the first since Affirmed in 1978, is the consummate professional in his trainer's opinion.
"He enjoys what he does. When he runs his ears are up and he's having fun when he's running," he said. "That's the difference with him. He's happy and he's strong. He's fit enough. He's had all of these races. He looked pretty sharp today."
The same could be said for Baffert, who will attempt to win the Triple Crown after coming up short in three previous attempts with Silver Charm, Real Quiet and War Emblem.
"I'm holding up okay. I'm good as long as I don't have to run myself," Baffert joked. "I'm just enjoying it. Jimmy and everyone in the barn knows their job so I'm just coordinating it. He hasn't given me anything to worry about. So far we like what we see and we're excited about him.
"We know we're against it. This is a very tough race with a lot of very nice horses in it. Like Pat Riley said, 'In championship games there is winning and there is misery,' so that's what we're looking at right now," he continued. "I'm soaking it in. It's exciting. I never thought I'd be back here again in this position, but the way he won his races, and then the Preakness, he was so dominating that day. When he's right, he likes to dominate. He's that kind of horse. Hopefully, he can bring it one more time."
Baffert said that he would send American Pharoah out again Thursday and Friday morning "for a nice little gallop" and had not decided if he would send him to the paddock for a schooling lesson at 11 am either today or Thursday. Saturday morning he will walk in the barn before being led over for the race.
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