AMERICAN PHAROAH'S victory in the 2015 Belmont Stakes was one of the most significant horse races in history, a wire-to-wire performance that produced the first Triple Crown in 37 years. Belmont Park trembled in celebration and relief that day, as the sport finally ended the drought that had come to define its most visible events. Thirteen times in the years after Affirmed won the Triple Crown in 1978, a horse had come to Belmont having won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness; 13 times that horse did not win the Belmont.
The drought was not just a burden; it was also a reliable narrative. Even as the Belmont often ended with failure, it created more anticipation for the next attempt, and the attempt after that. The roar that was loosed as American Pharoah crossed the finish was the product of nearly four decades of anticipation. It was a remarkable day, when history was not only made, but also alive.
The Triple Crown was not on the line at the two ensuing Belmonts, in 2016 and '17. But this year it is, as Justify, a strapping and precocious 3-year-old who did not run his first race until Feb. 18 of this year, will attempt to become the sport's 13th Triple Crown winner on June 9. It's difficult to measure buzz, but it will be fascinating to observe how the lack of a long drought affects the excitement around this Belmont. In '73, Secretariat won the first Triple Crown in 25 years; four years later, Seattle Slew was very popular when he pulled off the same feat, but Slew ran in the vapor trail of Secretariat's fame.
Justify will be favored to win the Belmont, but it's perilous to declare a win certain or even likely. While he has already done remarkable things, like dominate in Kentucky, Justify struggled to the line in Baltimore, finishing less than a combined length in front of three others. His trainer, Bob Baffert, likened the performance to American Pharoah's Derby, a race he won despite lacking his best speed. Pharoah got better after that. Baffert says Justify will get better too.
Two weeks before the Belmont, with the field still in flux, Justify's majority owner, WinStar Farm, pulled the fast-closing Audible, third-place finisher at the Derby and a credible challenger to Justify, from the 1½ -mile race. It was a decision expected to divide the racing community.
What should not be in dispute is how remarkable winning three races in five weeks remains. It would be a mistake to conflate the volume of the buzz with the accomplishment of the deed.
"IT WILL BE FASCINATING TO OBSERVE HOW THE LACK OF A LONG DROUGHT AFFECTS EXCITEMENT AROUND THIS BELMONT."
SIGN OF THE APOCALYPSE
A GOOGLE SEARCH OF *NSYNC TEMPORARILY REVEALED THE BARITONE MEMBER AS SHAQUILLE O'NEAL INSTEAD OF JOEY FATONE. O'NEAL IS OF COURSE A TENOR.
THEY SAID IT
"I HAVE A LOT OF BIG BELLY, SO I CAN TAKE IT."
BARTOLO COLON, the 5'11", 285-pound Rangers pitcher, after a 102-mph comebacker nailed him in the abdomen.