American Pharoah's Date With Triple Crown Destiny Arrives At Belmont Stakes

By Steve Ginsburg

ELMONT, New York, June 6 (Reuters) - American Pharoah seeks to become the first winner of the U.S. Triple Crown in nearly four decades when he takes on seven rivals in the $1.5 million Belmont Stakes later on Saturday.

The last horse to sweep the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes was Affirmed in 1978 and American Pharoah owner Ahmed Zayat thinks his colt could end the long drought.

"Look at him," he told reporters. "This will be his fourth race in eight weeks. That usually takes a toll on a horse but he's coming in to the race the best he can be.

"We're coming in feeling that he has a real shot to win the Triple Crown."

American Pharoah is the only Belmont Stakes horse that raced in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, meaning the 2014 2-year-old champion will be facing some fresh challengers.

Throw in American Pharoah's earlier victories in the Rebel Stakes and Arkansas Derby and you might have a horse ill-prepared for the grueling mile-and-a-half Belmont.

But the colt's trainer, Bob Baffert, seeking to saddle his first Triple Crown winner after having been denied three previous times in the Belmont Stakes, said this is the best horse he's ever had in his barn.

"He was the champion last year and this year he has gone on and shown himself to be a superior horse," said Baffert, a Hall of Famer. "He has performed brilliantly."

On paper, no horse has the credentials of American Pharoah but the Belmont Stakes, dubbed "The Test of Champions" because of its demanding distance, has a way of showcasing emerging stars.

Last year, Tonalist, a colt that skipped both the Derby and the Preakness, was a surprise champion at Belmont Park and helped deny California Chrome a Triple Crown.

Potential spoilers to American Pharoah's party could be Florida Derby champion Materiality, who had a rough ride in the Kentucky Derby before finishing sixth, or perhaps Wood Memorial winner Frosted, who had a poor start at Churchill Downs but closed with a flurry to finish fourth.

There was rain in New York early Saturday and a wet surface is often a great equalizer. But American Pharoah's victory in the Rebel Stakes was on a sloppy track as was his seven-length triumph in the Preakness.

"I hope it'll be a dry track, because it is ridiculous the way he runs on an off track," said trainer Nick Zito, who will saddle Frammento. "It's a little scary." (Reporting by Steve Ginsburg; editing by Justin Palmer)