I can still close my eyes and watch American Pharoah storm down the stretch at Belmont to break a long string of heartbreak and claim his place in immortality. It was one of the great days of my life. It also spoiled us. Casual racing fans are again able to forget just how incredibly tough winning the Triple Crown is. It's absolutely brutal, and it's take an extremely special horse to do it. When you look back at past winners you realize that they didn't become greats by winning it - they won it because they were great. So, I will bravely face the same question I get every year - will there be a Triple Crown winner in 2017? The short answer is simply "no". Here are four good reasons why:
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Lack of class: American Pharoah was extremely good coming into the 2015 Derby. All but faultless. As I write this we are 10 days out from the 2017 Derby and I'm not even convinced that any of these horses are any good. Some classes are better than others, and this group has certainly had their struggles when it comes to shining with consistency.
Too many viable contenders: The flip side of the last point is that there are a lot of horses that have shown flashes of decency. I am willing to toss Irap and Fast and Accurate , and I'm not crazy about Battle of Midway , but I can make at least a half-hearted argument in favor of most of the other 17 likely starters. It will be tough for one horse to emerge three races in a row when there are this many horses that are within range of being equally talented.
Fresh shooters: More and more often we are seeing the decision made to hold horses out of the Derby and aim them elsewhere. Conquest Mo Money is heading to the Preakness, and Malagacy might skip the Derby for elsewhere, too. And then there are all the other horses that were never in the Derby picture that will enter the other races fresh. Too often Triple Crown bids are derailed by runners like this.
Difficulty: Winning the Triple Crown is just really, really hard. Betting against it happening is always the right decision.
But if you are a romantic you will still want to pretend that a Triple Crown is possible, my dose of soul crushing reality will not have dimmed your hope. In that case, then, here is the best I can do when it comes to coming up with reasons that something historic could happen this year:
The contenders aren't always obvious by now: In 2002 War Emblem paid $43.00 to win the Kentucky Derby and went to the Belmont with a shot at a Triple Crown. Three years earlier, Charismatic won the Derby at 31/1, and came much closer in the Belmont than War Emblem did. Funny Cide was 13/1 in the Derby. I'll Have Another was 15/1. So in the last 18 years alone we have seen four horses that won the Derby and the Preakness who had very little faith from bettors before the first Saturday in May. I remember each of those races clearly and will admit that I didn't respect any of the horses before the race. Given that there is no shortage of horses I have little respect for this year, it is certainly not impossible that one could surprise and head to Belmont on a two-race winning streak. And once you get to Belmont anything can happen.
None of these horses are too tough to beat: One of the things that makes American Pharoah's Triple Crown so impressive is that he not only had to win the three races, but he had to beat another very good horse in Dortmund to do so. Affirmed had to beat the great Alydar three times. Affirmed and American Pharoah were great horses, and they needed to be to dispatch those rivals. None of the horses this year have proven any greatness yet, but then they also don't have any obvious great rivals they have to beat. There isn't a contender that isn't vulnerable in some glaring way. It takes a lesser horse to beat flawed contenders than it does to beat great ones.
Breeding: I'm a pedigree geek. While this group isn't nearly as strong as some we have seen lately on the track, on paper they stack up nicely and are deeper from a breeding perspective than a lot of years. Classic Empire is a son of Pioneerof The Nile, who sired American Pharoah. Malibu Moon, who sired 2013 Derby winner Orb, is the sire of Gormley and the damsire of Girvin. We have sons of Tiznow, Curlin, Ghostzapper and Mineshaft - all Horse of the Year winners who could run forever. Smart Strike, who sired Battle of Midway, sired Curlin, and he was the damsire of Mine That Bird. Unbridled's Song sired Arrogate. Union Rags won the Belmont. Hansen and Uncle Mo were two year old champions. So was Lookin at Lucky, and he was three-year-old champ, too. Shackleford won the Preakness. Tapit wins top sire honors so often it has become a habit. Bodemeister was second in the Derby and Preakness. This is an exceptional group of sires and damsires who are well suited to this challenge. From all of that blue blood it doesn't seem impossible that some greatness could emerge.
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