06/02/2015 1:08PM

Fornatale: Wolfson hopes ‘D-Day’ looms for American Pharoah


During Belmont Week last year, I wrote a piece about contest legend Steve Wolfson Sr. Wolfson’s claims to fame in the contest world are numerous. In 1991, he created the Thoroughbred Challenge at the Mirage in Las Vegas. He has played on the NHC Tour since its inception and has qualified for the National Handicapping Championship 10 times. He is also the father of 2003 NHC champ Steve Wolfson Jr.

The piece recalled the tradition of the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins – how they pop a bottle of champagne each year when the last unbeaten NFL team loses its first game. Wolfson related to this. His father owned Affirmed, and he was rooting against California Chrome’s bid for history.

“For my dad’s sake, I’d rather Affirmed be the last Triple Crown winner,” Wolfson said last year. “My dad had such an amazing life, and Affirmed’s Triple Crown might have been the high point. I don’t ever want it to happen for that reason.”

I thought this year might be a little different. Not only has American Pharoah appeared to be a more worthy potential Triple Crown winner than California Chrome – a champion 2-year-old in a well-regarded crop – but Wolfson’s family has a personal connection to this horse on both sides of his pedigree via Raise a Native, the horse who put Harbor View Farm, owned by Wolfson’s father, on the map back in 1963.

Moreover, the sire of American Pharoah’s second dam, Exclusive Rosette, is Ecliptical. “That’s a horse my brothers and I ran 30 years ago,” Wolfson said. “He was trained by Shug McGaughey, and Shug rarely used to call me – to the point where I thought he might have broken his fingers. But one afternoon that spring, I got a call from Shug at Churchill Downs. ‘Your horse just won by the length of the stretch,’ he told me, ‘and if Randy [Romero] hadda clucked to him, he would’ve broken the track record, and I’d likely be investigated.”

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Ecliptical never lived up to that early promise – he lost his next six races and became a mediocre sire. But he was kin to some good ones, including Eminency, who won $705,009 back when that meant something, and Ecliptical, through his daughter Exclusive Rosette, has in Wolfson’s view passed on some of the family brilliance to her grandson American Pharoah.

So, where does Wolfson stand with American Pharoah? As ever, he’s a contrarian – and he is not buying the idea that a Triple Crown win will be a panacea, or even merely good, for the sport.

“For the sake of racing, I hope he loses,” Wolfson said. “We talked last year about how I root for all of these old streaks in sports to never be equaled – DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, John Wooden’s great run of victories, Rod Laver’s Grand Slams – I believe that the fact it’s been so long since we’ve seen a Triple Crown is why all these people care.”

Wolfson has been impressed with what he’s seen from American Pharoah on the track, and he made money betting on him in the Derby. “I didn’t think he could lose,” Wolfson said. “I’d heard all the talk about how he was a super-freak, but his Derby gave me pause.”

He noted the margin of victory and the number of times Victor Espinoza hit American Pharoah as the causes of concern. Still, Wolfson doesn’t dispute that American Pharoah has the best form coming into the Belmont Stakes. “On paper, the only things his competition has over him are longer tails and correctly spelled names.”

In the contest world, Wolfson is known as a breeding expert, partially because of his time working with both Harbor View Farm and Happy Valley Racing. He is not convinced that American Pharoah will be able to stay the Belmont’s 1 1/2 miles.

“I wouldn’t put him in the top three in the race in terms of his ability to get the distance,” he said.

The more we talked, the less sold on the Pharoah he sounded. “I wonder how much the mud at Oaklawn and Pimlico moved him up and how much it hurt the other runners,” he said. “I’m not rooting for him. I think my first instinct if he won would be disappointment. That could change over time if he stayed in training and proved that he really was a great horse and worthy successor to the great Triple Crown champions of the past.”

He doesn’t expect that will happen. The more likely scenario if American Pharoah wins is that we won’t see him race again. “I think things will be okay for six months, but I worry that the people who get excited and buy American Pharoah T-shirts will be unhappy when they realize they have to wait three years to see his babies run and the pursuit of the Triple Crown will give way to ho-hum.”

Saturday, in addition to being Belmont Stakes Day, is also the 71st anniversary of D-Day. “This might be D-Day for American Phraoah,” Wolfson said, “and the D stands for ‘defeat.’ ”

Who does Wolfson think will win? “I think he could get a cold shoulder. Frosted will win, and Keen Ice will get a piece.”

But his main rooting interest will be in keeping American Pharoah from the sweep – and ensuring that Affirmed’s legacy as the last Triple Crown winner remains intact. “The best thing will be if he loses and then somebody’s going for the Triple Crown next year, and I get a call from you again.”