By Steve Ginsburg
(Reuters) - American Pharoah is closing in on his chance to end a record drought of Triple Crown winners at the Belmont Stakes on Saturday and guarantee his place in the pantheon of racing greats.
Regally bred and just a little bit skittish, American Pharoah will face seven challengers in the 147th running of the 1-1/2 mile race, aptly dubbed "The Graveyard of Champions."
Since Affirmed won the last Triple Crown in 1977, 13 horses have won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes but failed to win the Belmont, most of them fading in the stretch.
"I sort of feel like I have an edge, but coming in here and going one-and-a-half miles, it's a completely different story," said Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, who will make his fourth attempt to saddle a Triple Crown winner.
"We don't know how any of them are going to handle it because none of them have been that far. We just hope and dream from here on out."
The distance is grueling, especially for a horse that raced in the May 2 Derby and the Preakness two weeks later. Horses these days are bred for speed and not stamina, and three races in five weeks is often too much to ask of a 3-year-old horse.
Of the eight Belmont starters, American Pharoah is the only horse that raced in the Derby and Preakness, so the Kentucky-bred colt will be facing some fresh opposition, which often is a death knell for Triple Crown hopefuls.
American Pharoah, ridden by Victor Espinoza, is the morning line 3-5 favorite, followed by Wood Memorial winner Frosted (5-1), who finished fourth in the Derby, and Kiaran McLaughlin-trained Materiality (6-1), who ran fourth at Churchill Downs.
But the Belmont Stakes often makes stars out of relatively unknown horses, like last year, when Tonalist, who had skipped both the Derby and the Preakness, won the race and helped deny California Chrome a Triple Crown.
Surprise Preakness runner-up Tale of Verve, a 15-1 longshot on Saturday, could be one of those horses.
"He's a horse that's really bred for the distance. He can take it. He's got the stamina, he's got the pedigree," said trainer Dallas Stewart.
A sell-out crowd of 90,000 will be on hand at Belmont Park for a chance to witness a piece of history. While Baffert is hoping the fourth time is the charm, Espinoza's ride will be his third try at a Triple Crown.
In Baffert's first two Triple Crown attempts, Silver Charm, in 1997, lost the Belmont Stakes lead in the final 100 yards and finished second, while a year later, Real Quiet was edged at the wire by Victory Gallop in a photo finish.
"I'm reminded every year of Real Quiet and Silver Charm," said Baffert. "(American Pharoah) is a different horse than they were. You really don't know until the whole series is over how good the horses are.
"I'm just hoping I brought the right horse here, but we won't know until halfway into the race."
(Reporting by Steve Ginsburg in Washington; Editing by Frank Pingue)