Splashing through Baltimore

- -

One of the significant questions American Pharoah faced heading into Saturday’s $1.5 million Xpressbet.com Preakness Stakes was how he’d fare coming back in two weeks after the toughest race of his young life. The Kentucky Derby winner seemed poised to handle that test, looking more than just formidable as he trained this week and a standout in the small Preakness field despite an less-than-preferred inside post-position draw.

Then Mother Nature threw a big puzzler at American Pharoah and the rest of the field for the second jewel of the Triple Crown when threatening skies emptied a massive amount of rain down on Pimlico Race Course. By the time the 140th Preakness was complete a little before 6:30 p.m. Saturday it was difficult to say which he dominated more – the rain-soaked sloppy track or his mud-spattered seven opponents.

American Pharoah thrashed the Preakness field in front of a record crowd of 131,680, winning by 7 lengths under a tactically savvy ride from Victor Espinoza, setting up a run at immortality and a sweep of the Triple Crown in three weeks in the Belmont Stakes. Zayat Stable’s homebred son of Pioneerof the Nile made it look easy every step of the way, much different than the Derby when he needed to work in the stretch to get past Firing Line and stablemate Dortmund.

Neither Firing Line, who broke terribly and didn’t look comfortable on the sloppy surface, or Dortmund factored this time around as longshots Tale of Verve and Divining Rod completed the trifecta in the strung out field of eight. American Pharoah won the 1 3/16-mile Preakness in 1:58.46, nowhere close to the track or stakes records and the slowest in nearly 60 years. His winning Derby in 2:03.02 didn’t break any stopwatches either, but time seems irrelevant considering he’s by far the best of this generation.

“I think what he showed us today, this is the only horse I’ve never had to try to talk people into knowing how good he is,” a soaked trainer Bob Baffert said afterwards. “I sort of keep it low key because I didn’t want to jinx myself. But he’s doing all the talking.”

American Pharoah’s run in the Belmont will mark the fourth time Baffert went for a sweep of the Triple Crown since 1997, a significant achievement for the Hall of Famer even if he comes up short again. He came close in 1997 with Silver Charm, who lost by less than a length to Touch Gold after dogfights in the first two jewels of the Triple Crown. He got even closer the next year with Real Quiet, who had to fend off rival Victory Gallop in the Derby and Preakness but couldn’t in the Belmont when he was second by a nose. War Emblem was brilliant in Louisville and Baltimore but then lost his race at the break before finishing eighth in the 2002 Belmont.

Now 13 years later Baffert will be answering a lot of the same questions he faced then and even earlier this year as American Pharoah prepared for the spring classics. Fortunately, for Baffert, Espinoza, Ahmed Zayat and the rest of the team, American Pharoah always comes up with the answers.

“Well, I’ve never won this race as easily and handily,” Baffert said.

The Belmont doesn’t figure to be as easy, with a demanding 1 1/2-mile distance and plenty of fresh faces to confront. A large field could show up in New York for a race called the Test of Champions, including the Preakness runner-up who easily could have cut the margin of victory in half with a better trip, a talented group from Todd Pletcher’s barn and others that ran in the Derby and didn’t run in Baltimore.

So what does Baffert think of that next question?

“I really don’t think about the third leg yet,” he said. “I’ll see how he comes back. It’s going to be tough. I’ve always said this is the easiest of the three legs, and the next race is going to be – I know everybody right now is sharpening their knives getting ready.”

A smiling Zayat responded to that statement perfectly on cue.

“Bring it on,” he said.