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The Belmont Stakes and the Triple Crown: a non-horse racing fan's guide

The 2014 Belmont Stakes.
The 2014 Belmont Stakes.
(Al Bello/Getty Images)

The Belmont Stakes is here. At around 6:50 pm ET on Saturday, some 20 million Americans will stop what they're doing to watch eight horses run a mile and a half around a dirt track in Long Island. The whole thing will take less than three minutes.

Most people will be watching because of American Pharoah, a horse that has already won two other big races, the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes. If American Pharoah wins the Belmont as well, he'll be the first horse to win the Triple Crown since 1978. That's a big deal — even in an era when horse racing has declined in prominence.

The race will be broadcast on NBC and streamed online, with coverage starting at 4:30 ET. For non-horse racing fans, here's a quick primer.

1) What is the Triple Crown?

kentucky derby

The Kentucky Derby, the first leg of the Triple Crown. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

The Triple Crown is a set of three horse races (the Kentucky Derby in Louisville, the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore, and the Belmont Stakes in Elmont, New York), run every year in May and June. They're by far the most prominent horse races in the United States, and in the rare event that a horse wins all three in one year, he wins a trophy of the same name (almost all the horses in these races are males, and they're all of a particular breed called thoroughbred).

triple crown

(NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

The races began in the 1860s or '70s, and gradually rose to prominence as horse racing boomed as a spectator sport during the 1920s. The New York Times popularized the term "triple crown" in 1930, after Gallant Fox became the second horse to win all three races. In 1950, these races were effectively enshrined as the pinnacle of the sport, when the Thoroughbred Racing Association commissioned the trophy.

To that point, eight different horses had won the Triple Crown. Three more — including the legendary Secretariat, who still holds the all-time speed records in all three races — did it during the 1970s, an era often considered the golden age of horse racing.

No horse has accomplished the feat since. And even though the popularity of horse racing has gradually faded, the allure of the Triple Crown means lots of people still tune in every year, especially when there's a horse with a chance of winning it.

2) Why is it so hard to win the Triple Crown?

triple crown

The most recent Triple Crown trophy, won by Affirmed in 1978. (Jean)

The most commonly cited reason is that these three races are different lengths, with the Belmont 20 percent longer than the Derby. In the specialized world of thoroughbred racing, this is a bit like asking a sprinter to run and win a marathon for the first time. Some horses that win the earlier races are unable to continue dominating as the races get longer.

Additionally, all three races are packed into five weeks, and fresh challengers can enter the field during that time. This may be a bigger problem nowadays than in the 1970s, some say, because horses don't run as many races during training, and don't develop the same level of endurance.

Finally, one overlooked factor might have to do with a restriction common to all three races: all the horses running have to be 3 years old.

This rule originated back in the 1800s, in the prestigious English races these races are modeled for. The reasoning was that horses don't generally reach full maturity — and top speed — until they're 4 or 5. And as Brendan Koerner puts it at Slate, "A race consisting of 4-year-olds would be something of a snooze, because by that time it would be clear which horses were great and which were lackluster. On the other hand, 3-year olds guarantee both viewing and wagering excitement."

This excitement depends upon variability. The horse that wins the Kentucky Derby might be outstripped by a later-maturing horse in the Preakness or the Belmont. It's somewhat akin to the variability in March Madness, where you have still-developing college players springing lots of upsets, compared with the NBA playoffs, where the top-rated teams with elite players win much more predictably.

There's also some evidence that these younger horses are more likely to suffer injuries, especially given the stress of three races within five weeks. This explains cases like that of Barbaro, a horse that dominated the 2006 Kentucky Derby but broke his leg in the Preakness and was eventually euthanized.

3) Will American Pharoah win the Triple Crown this year?

american pharoah

American Pharoah wins the Kentucky Derby. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

It's very possible. American Pharoah is coming into Belmont as the heavy favorite, having won both the Derby and Preakness. He's also a particularly dominant horse, winning the Preakness by seven lengths (an unusually long distance) and achieving victory in six of the seven races he's competed in.

Still, similar situations have occurred many times before, and 13 other horses have won the first two legs of the Triple Crown since 1978, while failing to win Belmont. There's always a good chance American Pharoah will fall too.

Note: "American Pharoah" isn't a misspelling. Yes, the word for an ancient Egyptian ruler is spelled "Pharaoh," but the horse's name is American Pharoah, due to a typo in his registration form with the Jockey Club in 2014. Yes, that's bizarre. But as Seth Rosenthal says at SB Nation, "Horses can't spell, so who cares."

4) Who's riding these horses?

victor espinoza

Victor Espinoza. (Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Each horse has generally has the same jockey in every race. American Pharoah's is Victor Espinoza, who also rode War Emblem in 2002 and California Chrome in 2014 — both horses that won the first two races of the Triple Crown but lost Belmont.

Though a horse's success or victory is mostly attributed to the horse itself, the jockey plays a key role. Though jockeys have to be extremely light (the Kentucky Derby requires each jockey and equipment weigh less than 126 pounds), they also have to be strong enough to control a 1,200-pound animal moving at 40 miles per hour.

The jockeys don't actually sit on the horses, but perch above them, clutching their manes and urging them on with a small whip. There's also a lot of strategy in terms of pace and placement on the track, and each race brings a huge risk of injury. The New York Times article "The Jockey" paints a fascinating picture of what life as a jockey is like.

Each horse in the race also has a trainer, who works with it (and perhaps other horses) daily to get it into racing shape, and an owner who bankrolls the whole operation.

5) Why do horses have such weird names?

The basic reason is that the Jockey Club (the governing body for thoroughbred horse racing in the US) has extremely complicated rules for new horse names.

To be accepted, a name can't have been used for any horse that's raced or bred in the past five years. The name can't be an acronym or a vulgarity, it can't include a horse-related term (like "colt" or "stallion"), and it can't consist entirely of numbers. It can't be a name used by any horse that's won a major race in the past 25 years, a name associated with a company, or the name of a person living or deceased (without special permission).

In total, there are about 450,000 horses registered at any given time, and 60,000 or so new ones are submitted every year (with one-third typically rejected). To satisfy all these conditions, owners have to get pretty creative. Thus, you have Flush Flush Flush, Gorilla My Dreams, and Pyrite Doctorate — all bizarre names on the New York Times's list of 500 worst-named horses of the last decade.

6) Are these horses abused?

Critics say they are. Though most trainers and jockeys don't intentionally harm their horses, investigations have uncovered some who administer dangerous performance-enhancing drugs, force their animals to race injured, and use illegal buzzers to shock horses and make them ride faster.

Defenders of the sport say this sort of thing isn't the norm. But it's plagued by a weak regulatory apparatus and a "code of silence" among trainers, so it's likely that more of this behavior goes on than the public ever hears about.

And whether or not the horses are abused during their racing lives, there's always the uncomfortable reality that after they're too old or injured, they're usually euthanized and butchered for horse meat, to be sold in Europe or Japan.

7) How does all the betting work?

horse betting

(Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

Gambling on the performance of these horses is one of the main draws of the sport. It also explains why you'll often see their names with a bunch of numbers like 10/1 or 3/5 next to them.

These are the betting odds. The first number is the amount of dollars you'd win if you bet on the horse and wagered the second number of dollars.

As of this writing, bookies have decided the horse Frosted has 5/1 odds. This means if you bet $1, you'll get paid $5 if he wins (plus you'll get back the $1 you originally bet). American Pharoah, the favorite, has 3/5 odds — which means that if you bet $5, you'll only get $3 if he wins (plus the $5 you originally bet). You can bet whatever amount you like, but the ratio between your wager and the winnings remains the same.

All this is calculated by sportsbooks based on their expectation of which horses are most likely to win, to ensure they turn a profit. If they believe a horse has a 50 percent chance of winning, for instance, they'll set the odds so that if you bet $10, you only get $9 back — guaranteeing, over the long run, that they'll make $1 on each bet.

SB Nation presents: Horse racing's Triple Crown lineage