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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — As American Pharoah glided across the Churchill Downs track in the rain Monday morning, Neil Howard kept clicking his stopwatch at every furlong marker.
And kept exclaiming.
"Damn!" the trainer said.
Understand, Howard has been around the racetrack for 46 years and operated his own stable since 1979. He won the Preakness Stakes with Summer Squall in 1990 and had the American Horse of the Year in 2003 with Mineshaft.
If Neil Howard is impressed by what a horse is doing in the morning, you should be, too.
"So effortless," he said after American Pharoah had flown through five furlongs in 1 minute and galloped out strongly after that, in the colt's final major workout before being shipped to New York on Tuesday for the Belmont Stakes and a shot at the excruciatingly elusive Triple Crown. "He is something else."
A number of veteran Churchill horsemen appeared in the clocker's stand Monday morning at 8:30 – not to watch their own animals, but to witness a horse that could be unlike any they've seen since the 1970s. They're jaded enough to know better, but the dreamer within wants to see it happen again in their lifetime.
In the clocker's stand, you could almost feel optimism swell as American Pharoah showed his extraordinary stride in full flight.
This could be The One.
But how many times have we seen this and said that before? Thirteen times in the last 37 years, to be precise. That's how many horses have won the first two legs of the Triple Crown but failed to complete the quest since Affirmed last did it, in 1978.
Here – on the cusp – is where unbridled hope crashes into the unforgiving wall of experience.
[Slideshow: American Pharoah's final workout]
For a few more days, these are the best of times for the American Pharoah bandwagon. With the final workout out of the way, this is the moment to enjoy the view from the summit. The horse looks great, the hosannas are flowing, a normally indifferent world is paying attention, the Big Apple is offering its outsized embrace.
Enjoy it now. Because the Saturday experience could be very different.
Bob Baffert, trainer of American Pharoah, has been here – on the cusp – more than anyone. He has the Triple Crown scar tissue to show for his three previous Belmont heartbreaks, with immortality there for the taking. In 1997, Silver Charm was passed in the deep stretch by Touch Gold. A year later, Real Quiet was beaten by a nose at the wire by Victory Gallop – a fateful head bob at precisely the wrong moment. And in 2002, front-running War Emblem was doomed from the start when he stumbled out of the starting gate.
Given that history, Baffert understands like no other human how hard this is to finish.
"I know what I'm walking into," Baffert said Monday.
He's walking into an ambush, pure and simple. The Triple Crown has become an unfair competition, one rigged against the best horse. Having witnessed one Belmont bust after another, I can recite the reasons as easily as the pledge of allegiance.
American Pharoah will be the only horse in the field Saturday to be making his third start in five weeks at three different tracks over three distances. On May 2, he ran farther than he ever had before – 1¼ miles in the Kentucky Derby. Two weeks later, he came back to win the 1 3/16-mile Preakness in Baltimore. Now it's on to New York, and the 1½-mile Belmont – the so-called "Test of a Champion."
But it's not a fair test. Several horses – most notably Todd Pletcher's Materiality and Kiaran McLaughlin's Frosted – were handed a cheat sheet.
After losing the Derby, they skipped the Preakness and went home to New York to rest up and ready the ambush. And given the relative fragility and light racing schedule thoroughbreds have become accustomed to, that extra rest is a significant advantage.
Then you have to factor in that other connections will be concocting race strategies specifically designed to beat American Pharoah. The colt is naturally fast but also athletic and tractable enough to show tactical speed – forwardly placed, but not necessarily demanding the lead – but he will be a target Saturday.
[ThePostGame: American Pharoah trainer recalls his 'Donkey Kong' obsession]
The goal for several competitors will be to take American Pharoah out of the comfort zone he has enjoyed for most of his 3-year-old races. He doesn't figure to get everything his way this time around.
"It becomes a jockey race and now that you have more horses in the field, you're going to get a lot of people making runs at you, you know you're the target, and we understand that," Baffert said last week. "… It's not going to be easy. I know we're up against it there, and odds are against us."
Paradoxically, the odds will not be against American Pharoah. If there is one place where hope continues to triumph in the face of bitter experience, it's at the betting windows on Belmont day.
Every time, the Derby and Preakness winner is sent off as the overwhelming favorite. Every time since 1979, that horse has lost. But you can believe American Pharoah will be no worse than even money when the morning line is set at the post-position draw Wednesday afternoon.
And then, when owner Ahmed Zayat (a famously avid gambler) lays down his wager, those odds will get smaller still.
After the Preakness triumph in the slop at Pimlico, Baffert – the voice of experience – tried to maintain the cautious rhetoric the American Pharoah camp has espoused all year. Zayat – the voice of hope – was difficult to rein in.
"It's going to be tough," Baffert said. "The next race is going to be ... I know everybody right now is sharpening their knives getting ready."
Zayat interjected: "Bring it on."
They'll bring it Saturday. And after a stirring workout Monday inflated the optimism of racing dreamers, we will see whether hope finally wins out. Or whether it bows to brutal Belmont experience once again.