ELMONT, N.Y. — American Pharoah is the 3-5 favorite to win the Belmont Stakes Saturday. That makes perfect sense, except for the reasonable rebuttal that it makes no sense at all.
When compared to his equine competition, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner has no competition at all. He has raced all seven other horses in the field, and dominated each of them.
Only Frosted, the second betting choice at 5-1, has come within seven lengths of American Pharoah in their last meeting. (He was beaten by more than three lengths while finishing fourth in the Derby May 2.) Materiality was beaten by about 7½ lengths in the Derby, Keen Ice by 8½, Mubtaahij by nine-plus and Frammento by nearly 12. In the Preakness, Tale of Verve was a distant second to American Pharoah, seven lengths back. And the last time Madefromlucky hooked up with the Belmont favorite, in the Arkansas Derby in April, he finished nine-plus lengths in arrears.
So there isn't a single horse in this field that the oddsmakers would reasonably put ahead of the Triple Crown aspirant.
But there is this inconvenient truth that clouds an otherwise clear picture: the Triple Crown aspirant never wins a race that in its recent history has been rife with flukish outcomes.
The favorite hasn't won in a decade, and has won just twice since 1995. Seven times this century, the winner has been a double-digit-odds long shot. Three times this century, the winner's odds have been 36-1 or higher.
The Belmont has been the burial ground of Triple Crown dreams, and of every bettor who fell in love with those favorites.
Thirteen times since 1978, the Derby and Preakness winner has swaggered into New York with an aura of seeming invincibility. Thirteen times, the handicappers have been seduced. The average price on the Triple Crown aspirant in the Belmont since Affirmed is .83 cents to the dollar. Only four of those favorites have been sent off at even money or higher.
In other words, they ranged from mortal locks (Spectacular Bid, Smarty Jones, Big Brown) to near-locks (Funny Cide, War Emblem, Charismatic). And every one of them has lost.
In fact, two-thirds of them haven't even finished in the top two. There have been four second-place finishes, four in third, two in fourth, one in seventh, one DNF (Big Brown) and one pre-race scratch (I'll Have Another).
When the lead-pipe lock favorite runs out of the top two at the Belmont, a whopper exacta payout is sure to happen. The all-timer was 2002, when War Emblem finished seventh – a Sarava (70-1) over Medaglia d'Oro (16-1) exacta paid $2,454 on a $2 bet. In '99, when Charismatic finished third, the Lemon Drop Kid (30-1) over Vision and Verse (55-1) exacta paid $1,537.
Those make the $660 exacta of 2008 (when Big Brown bombed) and the $348 exacta of last year (when California Chrome finished fourth) look paltry. And they're really not paltry.
That's why American Pharoah trainer Bob Baffert said last week that "the odds are against us." Technically, they're not. But in reality, they are.
So if you're looking for a Belmont betting strategy, this might be the best plan: buy a $2 souvenir win ticket on American Pharoah, then toss him out of your exactas and play for the home run.
Taking recent history into consideration, making American Pharoah the 3-5 favorite seems counterintuitive. But it's impossible to specify who should be favored to beat him. That's the conundrum.
This is less a case of who will beat American Pharoah than what will beat him. The Belmont itself should be installed as the 1-9 favorite Saturday.
It's a trap race – a 1½-mile marathon that will be harder for the horse that has done the most work to get this far. Baffert's splendid colt is the only one of the eight entrants to have run both legs of the Triple Crown – and this always seems like the time when the odometer reading becomes a problem.
American Pharoah dazzled a lot of veteran horsemen with his workout Monday at Churchill Downs. But Tuesday Baffert said something that raised an eyebrow, noting that his colt "looks like a horse that's run in two big races, but I think his energy level is good."
Trainers are congenital liars to the press, always saying their horses are doing splendidly. They make Baghdad Bob sound like a straight shooter. Thus Baffert even hinting that there is some wear and tear on American Pharoah is noteworthy.
One of the bigger potential advantages he had on the field may have disappeared with Wednesday's weather forecast. A horse who is a genuine mudlark, relishing a wet track, looks like he will encounter dry conditions Saturday at the track they call Big Sandy.
Once again, the racing gods are ratcheting up the odds against the horse trying to win the Triple Crown. Even if the betting public refuses to see it.