By Steve Ginsburg
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - History suggests that there will be nothing easy about U.S. jockey Victor Espinoza's attempt to ride American Pharoah to a Triple Crown victory next month.
There has not been a Triple Crown winner since 1978 and one of the last attempts, by hugely popular Smarty Jones, ended in crushing disappointment.
As Smarty Jones barreled down the home stretch at Belmont Park in 2004, jockey Stewart Elliott knew his mount would fall short, disappointing a worldwide audience hoping to see the colt complete the Triple Crown.
Toward the end of the grueling 1-1/2-mile (2.4-km) course, the journeyman rider said he could feel the thoroughbred running out of gas and realized then that the Belmont Stakes was about to claim yet another victim.
"I knew if any other horse was running, we were going to get beat," Elliott said softly, recalling the pain of the 2004 race, "and we did."
On June 6, the world will get another opportunity to see a piece of sports history when Espinoza gets an unprecedented third crack at the coveted prize when he rides American Pharoah at Belmont Park to the cheers of a 90,000-strong crowd.
Espinoza, 43, is vying to become the 12th winner of the Triple Crown, one of the rarest feats in all of sports, having failed at Belmont Park with War Emblem in 2002 and California Chrome a year ago.
No horse has won the Belmont Stakes after finishing first in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes since Affirmed turned the trick in 1978 and Steve Cauthen became the youngest jockey to win a Triple Crown at just 18 years of age.
This year, spectators will gather at Belmont Park in Long Island, New York, hoping to witness a different fate from the one that befell Smarty Jones, a diminutive chestnut who was perhaps the most popular horse of his generation.
On that afternoon in 2004, a 36-1 longshot named Birdstone blew by the favorite just yards (meters) from the finish line, turning the mood from giddy to morgue-like in a matter of seconds. There was an audible gasp from the crowd of 120,000, followed by an eerie silence.
Of the 11 Triple Crown victors, no one had a harder path than Cauthen, whose colt had to battle Alydar in dramatic stretch drives in all three races.
The two rivals were by themselves for most of the Belmont Stakes before Affirmed won by a head to win and claimed a rarified place in horseracing history.
"It was fantastic, especially the way it happened," said Cauthen. "They were all tough battles. But in the Belmont, to get across the line 3 or 4 inches (7.5 cm to 10 cm) ahead after a mile-long (1.8 km) battle was extremely satisfying.
"A mile-and-a-half wasn't Affirmed's best distance, but what got him across the line was his desire and his heart."
The Triple Crown is only for 3-year-olds and its three races are each different distances. But the Belmont Stakes' punishing distance is so taxing for a thoroughbred, most never run that long again.
'I HAVE NO PRESSURE'
The 20-horse Derby is run on the first Saturday in May, followed by the Preakness two weeks later. The Belmont Stakes is three weeks after the Preakness, capping a series so tough that some horses never recover and have to be retired.
"You just have to have everything go right even if you have the best horse," said Cauthen, now 55. "You need for your horse to be at his best on all three occasions."
Before he takes to the track known as "Graveyard of Triple Crown Dreams," Espinoza insists he is ready for his third shot, even though he knows American Pharoah will be facing fresh horses, some that skipped the Derby or Preakness, or both.
Trained by Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, American Pharoah won the Derby by a mere length, but roared back to win the Preakness by an astonishing seven lengths at Baltimore's Pimlico Race Course.
"Before, I said I really want to win the Triple Crown," said Espinoza. "At this point, I have no pressure. If it happens, it happens. If it doesn't it just wasn't meant to be. I'll just move on with my life."
Last year, Espinoza tried vigorously to get California Chrome in position down the stretch but conceded the colt's gas tank was "empty." They finished fourth, losing to Tonalist, who skipped both the Derby and the Preakness.
Baffert is also aiming for his first Triple Crown, having been denied with Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet in 1998 and with War Emblem. He knows Espinoza has a target on his back.
"I know everybody right now is sharpening their knives, getting ready," he said minutes after his colt's Preakness victory.
But ordinary fans always thirst for a Triple Crown winner. Just ask Edgar Prado, the Birdstone jockey who beat Smarty Jones 11 years ago.
"I apologize to everybody," he said after the race.
(Editing by Mary Milliken, Frank McGurty and Sandra Maler)