By Steve Ginsburg
ELMONT, New York (Reuters) - Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert could hardly contain his elation over the final workout by Triple Crown hopeful American Pharoah before Saturday's $1.5 million Belmont Stakes.
"He looked like a monster out there," Baffert told reporters after the colt's gallop on Friday at Belmont Park. "I am really happy with the way he went. He's still sharp."
American Pharoah, ridden by Victor Espinoza, will take on seven rivals as he looks to become just the 12th Triple Crown winner and first since Affirmed swept the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes in 1978.
The exhausting mile-and-a-half Belmont Stakes is dubbed "Test of the Champion" because it is the longest of the three classic U.S. races and the final one.
Baffert knows the heartbreak, having saddled Triple Crown contenders Real Quiet, Silver Charm and War Emblem, only to come up short each time at Belmont Park -- in Real Quiet's case by mere inches.
American Pharoah, riding a six-race winning streak, won the May 2 Kentucky Derby by a length and two weeks later captured the Preakness Stakes in a runaway, winning by seven lengths in a driving rainstorm.
Baffert, who has saddled four Kentucky Derby winners, six Preakness champions and one Belmont Stakes winner, described Friday's workout as "the last hurdle" in American Pharoah's Triple regimen.
"All the work is done now," he said. "From here on, we'll try to relax a little. We need to make sure the horse is content and continues to eat well, and to stick to the same routine.
"And now we need to keep people away from him."
American Pharoah's credentials make him the race favorite, but that may not mean much. He is the only horse to have run in the Derby and Preakness and it is hard to ignore recent history.
A combined 14 horses have run in all three legs of the Triple Crown since 2006 and all of them, including six favorites, lost the Belmont Stakes.
Possible fatigue by American Pharoah could open the door for horses like the Todd Pletcher-trained Florida Derby champion Materiality or Wood Memorial winner Frosted, ridden by Joel Rosario and trained by Kiaran McLaughlin.
Baffert insists American Pharoah, who was named the 2-year-old champion last year despite missing the Breeders' Cup Juvenile with an injury, is the finest horse he has ever saddled.
"He's the best horse I've trained and he's my best hope for the Triple Crown," said the silver-haired, 62-year-old Baffert.
"This horse has a different vibe than the others. He's shown that he's a superior horse. He just needs to bring it one more time."
Trainer Nick Zito, whose two prior Belmont Stakes victories helped end the Triple Crown dreams of Smarty Jones in 2004 and Big Brown in 2008, is saddling longshot Frammento on Saturday.
"You see American Pharoah and you say, 'Who's going to beat this horse?'" he said. "But you've got to play the game and anything can happen. That's why they have a word called longshot."
(Editing by Mark Lamport-Stokes)