Saboteurs lined up to end American Pharoah's Triple Crown run

Pat Forde

ELMONT, N.Y. — Welcome to the Hater's Ball, American Pharoah.

You're the guest of honor, but watch your back. The hosts will try to spike your punch, trip you on the dance floor and steal your date with destiny.

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That's what New York does when it ushers in a Triple Crown aspirant. It goes out of the way to sabotage the colt's star turn.

If you've heard that New Yorkers are not the most hospitable people in the world, you're right – at least as it applies to its thoroughbred trainers. They love to ruin the big occasion.

Of the last seven times a horse has come to the Belmont Stakes in search of immortality, having won the first two legs of the Triple Crown, a New York-based trainer has scuttled the day five times. Christophe Clement and Tonalist did it last year to California Chrome – to the bitter dislike of Chrome owner Steve Coburn. Nick Zito has killed the coronation twice, in 2008 with Da'Tara and in '04 with Birdstone. The late Bobby Frankel and Empire Maker pulled the red carpet out from under Funny Cide in 2003. And in 1999, Scotty Schuhofer's Lemon Drop Kid spoiled Charismatic's day.

Todd Pletcher hopes one of his two horses will spoil American Pharoah's Triple Crown bid. (Getty Images)
Todd Pletcher hopes one of his two horses will spoil American Pharoah's Triple Crown bid. (Getty Images)

In every one of those occasions, the New York horse had skipped at least one of the first two legs of the Triple Crown. They prefer the ambush to the fair fight around here, which is a big reason why there hasn't been a Triple Crown winner since 1978.

Not that they're going to apologize for it.

"I would be happy to take on that role" of American Pharoah saboteur, said trainer Todd Pletcher.

He's the leading Triple Crown hater, a guy who has made a habit of losing the Kentucky Derby, bailing on the Preakness and then lying in wait at Belmont. He's won that race twice, with Palace Malice in 2013 and Rags to Riches in 2007.

Pletcher leads the nation in purse money won and always has a barn bursting with 3-year-olds, but can never seem to find one he likes to take to Baltimore for the second leg of the Crown. He's basically given up on that race, to the detriment of a struggling sport.

Pletcher had three horses in the Derby this year, plus a couple of other contenders he opted not to enter. He sent the usual zero to the Preakness. Now he will have two challengers in the Belmont: Materiality (sixth in the Derby, after being left at the gate) and Madefromlucky (won the Peter Pan Stakes here on May 9).

"It would be great for our sport to have a Triple Crown winner," Pletcher allowed. But he's not going to roll over and let it happen Saturday. He wants to defend home turf.

"This is home for me, home for my family," Pletcher said, standing outside his meticulously well-maintained barn at Belmont. "To win New York's premier race and Belmont Park's premier race is way up the ladder on races we want to win."

The other New York snipers who contested the Derby and skipped the Preakness had variations on the same thing. A Triple Crown winner would be nice – but not on my watch.

"I love the game and you'd like to see a Triple Crown winner," said Zito, who will send Frammento to post Saturday in search of a third long-shot Belmont upset in the last 11 years. "But if we're lucky enough and blessed enough to have something wacky happen again and win, that's history, too.

"As far as beating the big horse, something crazy has to happen. But it could happen."

Kiaran McLaughlin won the '06 Belmont with Jazil and currently trains Belmont second choice Frosted, who was fourth in the Derby and hasn't run since. He'll be gunning for American Pharoah, too.

"I'm born and raised a racing fan in Kentucky, and I'd love to see a Triple Crown winner," McLaughlin said. "But I'm only concerned about my horse, and we're going to try and beat [American Pharoah].

"I don't know if he can be beat, but if he can it looks like we might have the best shot. We hope the three races in five weeks catches up with him."

The haters all hope the unfairness of the Triple Crown catches up with the best horse and leaves him susceptible. And while that might not be the most sporting of attitudes, here's the bottom line:

Don't hate the players, hate the game.

The Triple Crown is outdated and flawed, an anachronism from an earlier time when hardier horses ran far more frequently. Today, the best ones never run three times in five weeks – and certainly not on three different tracks in three different states at three different distances. So the winner of the first two legs is at a distinct disadvantage.

And there is nothing in the rules that says a horse has to contest all three legs. So, the New York sniper thinking goes, why wear out my horses in what likely would be a losing effort in Baltimore when I can bring them home, get them some rest and go after a big score here?

Even Bob Baffert, trainer of American Pharoah, said he couldn't fault the trainers loading up to beat him.

"If they don't feel like they can handle them two weeks later, why not wait, freshen up a little bit, and basically, you know, catch him when he's already pitched eight innings," Baffert said. "So, maybe we can take a little bit of the fastball away from him, and get him – they know he's really a tough horse. So, I don't really blame them for that. I mean, that's just part of the Triple Crown; doesn't bother me at all."

We'll see Saturday how much it bothers him if the Hater's Ball goes the way it always seems to go – with a New York ambush.

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