05/21/2015 11:56AM

Hovdey: Going over the Triple Crown chase, to the letter

Barbara D. Livingston
Ahmed Zayat watches as American Pharoah schools in the paddock at Churchill Downs.

Ahmed Zayat, the man behind American Pharoah, likes to say that his homebred colt by a homebred stallion is a family production, “A to Z.” No argument here.

But while we’re on the subject, the Triple Crown challenge faced by American Pharoah in the 147th Belmont Stakes on June 6 deserves an A-to-Z treatment of its own. I lobbied hard to use the 13-character Hawaiian alphabet, but my editor insisted on the traditional 26. So, here goes:

A is for – who else? – Affirmed, the most recent winner of the Triple Crown, if 37 years ago can be called recent. Kobe Bryant was born in 1978, after Affirmed took care of Alydar. So were Bubba Watson, John Legend, Manny Pacquiao, and Katie Holmes, all grown from infants to stardom without the benefit of a Triple Crown winner to enrich their lives.

B is for Birdstone, the name that will be summoned most frequently in the coming days when the conversation turns to true Triple Crown spoilers, as in, “Smarty Jones looked like he had the 2004 Belmont Stakes won, and then Birdstone comes from nowhere to ruin everybody’s day.”

C is for the Cartier Jewelry Co., the designer of the three-sided Triple Crown trophy in 1950  that is normally on display at the Kentucky Derby Museum. When there is a chance that the Crown might be won, the museum sends it to Belmont Park, just in case, but the company hasn’t had to make a new trophy since 1979.

D is for dream, which is about the only way to describe the Triple Crown after so many years in the wilderness, the game awakening each Sunday morning after another bad Belmont date full of recriminations – what were we thinking? – and a brutal hangover.

E is for Emma, Ahmed Zayat’s youngest daughter, for whom the dam of American Pharoah was named. Littleprincessemma was sold by Zayat last fall for $2.1 million in foal to Pioneerof the Nile, establishing a high price for sentiment. The full brother to American Pharoah, born Feb. 13, is named Irish Pharaoh.

F is for furlongs, all 12 of them in the Belmont Stakes, which at the end of the day decides most Triple Crown attempts. The Belmont has been won on fast tracks as quickly as Secretariat’s 2:24 in 1973 and as slowly as Thunder Gulch’s 2:32 in 1995, during which some fans went for a beer and made it back for the finish.

G is for Martin Garcia, the only other jockey to have ridden American Pharoah, which he did in his first-race loss at Del Mar on Aug. 9. Garcia has continued as American Pharoah’s workout rider, most recently in the colt’s facile five-eighths prior to the Derby.

H is for Hempstead Turnpike, the 16-mile thoroughfare that fronts the Belmont Park main entrance and was labeled a few years ago as the most dangerous road in the tristate area. Don’t worry, though. It won’t be moving very fast, if at all, on June 6.

I is for Irish, as in the Coolmore Irish, for whom American Pharoah will toil at Ashford Stud in Kentucky when his racing days are done. Ashford was the home of the remarkable stallion Storm Bird, and, until he proved infertile, the remarkable racehorse Cigar.

J is for assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes, the loyal Sancho Panza to Bob Baffert’s Don Quixote in this tilting of Triple Crown windmills. Sidekicks rarely get the girl or take a bow, but Barnes deserves an ample share of credit for getting American Pharoah this far.

K is for King Umberto, the place just down the road from Belmont Park where anyone who wants to win the Belmont Stakes needs to spend quality time in conspicuous consumption of fine Italian cuisine. Winners have celebrated there, and losers have drowned their sorrows in Grandma’s pizza.

L is for Larry Collmus, who will be calling his first Belmont Stakes as the New York Racing Association’s track announcer, along with his regular duties on the NBC broadcast. Collmus has taken over for Tom Durkin, whose dramatic sensibilities got the wet-blanket treatment from nine failed Triple Crown attempts during his tenure.

M is for Mubtaahij, the intriguing winner of the UAE Derby, whose chances in the Belmont Stakes are not that outlandish when viewed through the prism of a race history won by two horses from his native Ireland, six from England, and one from Canada – Victory Gallop – who spoiled Real Quiet’s Triple Crown bid in 1998.

N is for NBC, which drew 20.6 million viewers for the hour of last year’s Belmont Stakes telecast, during which California Chrome failed to win the Triple Crown. There was no report as to how many of those 20.6 million threw nachos at the screen during co-owner Steve Coburn’s sore-loser post-race rant.

O is for Om, the name of the horse who won the only race American Pharoah has lost in seven starts. Om is a son of Munnings who missed the classics but has returned for trainer Dan Hendricks in good spirits, beating a deep field in an allowance race on grass at Santa Anita on May 10.

P is for “pharaoh,” with its sneaky Greek derivation and its images of profligate Egyptian rulers who built self-glorifying pyramids with slave labor. Jack Hawkins was a very British pharaoh in the 1955 movie “Land of the Pharaohs,” with a screenplay co-written by William Faulkner, who had no trouble spelling Yoknapatawpha, either.

Q is for the quarter pole in the 1964 Belmont at Aqueduct, where it was apparent that Northern Dancer, trying to win the Triple Crown, was not going to beat Quadrangle. Of all the horses appearing in American Pharoah’s five-generation pedigree, only Northern Dancer is found more than once.

R is for early retirement, which is the way all accomplished classic colts have gone since the turn of the century. Figure on American Pharoah to follow in the footsteps of Point Given, Bernardini, Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex, Hard Spun, Street Sense, Lookin At Lucky, and I’ll Have Another.

S is for starting gate, where the Triple Crown was lost for War Emblem, Bob Baffert, and Victor Espinoza in 2002, when the strong-willed front-runner missed the break and was quickly swallowed up by the large field.

T is for tail, of which American Pharoah has hardly any. This has not stopped him from running right to the brink of racing history, but it’s probably best not to show him a photo of Whirlaway, the winner of the 1941 Triple Crown also known as Mr. Longtail.

U is for upgrade, long awaited, to the platforms of the Long Island Rail Road station located at Belmont Park, which last year on Belmont Day was the scene of a post-race stampede reminiscent of the streets of Fulham after an Arsenal-Chelsea soccer match.

V is for Victor Espinoza, raised on a farm near Mexico City, who would be the latest in an international parade of Triple Crown jockeys that includes Ron Turcotte (Canada), Jean Cruguet (France), and John Longden (England). The other guys were born in Kentucky, Ohio, Montana, South Dakota, Chicago, and Brooklyn.

W is for wet, which describes the entire experience of 2003 under murky Long Island skies that leaked all over Funny Cide’s futile Triple Crown try. Empire Maker was roundly booed for winning the race, then later, he apologized by siring Pioneerof the Nile, the sire of American Pharoah.

X is for x-rays, which disclosed nothing in the way of a fracture when they were taken of American Pharoah’s left front foot after he was scratched from the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last fall. He has worn a protective plate between the shoe and hoof of the foot ever since.

Y is for Yankee Gentleman, the damsire of American Pharoah who was bred and raced by Pam and Marty Wygod and ran the fastest six furlongs of the 2003 Del Mar meet when he won the listed Pirate’s Bounty Stakes under Julie Krone. I know because she let me hold the trophy.

Z should be for Ahmed Zayat, but it’s also for Nick Zito, the Triple Crown cooler, who trained Birdstone to beat Smarty Jones and won what was left of the 2008 Belmont Stakes with Da’ Tara after Big Brown surrendered without a fight. Zito will be represented this time by Frammento, and who’s to say it can’t happen again? Triple Crown karma is powerful – and relentless.