Sent off the 9-10 favorite to follow up on his hard-fought defeat of Firing Line (Line of David) and Dortmund (Big Brown) in the GI Kentucky Derby May 2, Zayat Stables' American Pharoah (Pioneerof The Nile) came through for his backers with a much easier success in the GI Xpressbet.com Preakness Stakes before a record 131,680 ultimately rain-soaked fans at Baltimore's Pimlico Race Course.
The homebred, who Zayat bought back for $300,000 at the 2013 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga Sale, will attempt to become the 35th horse in history to complete the sequence and the first since Affirmed outlasted Alydar to secure the 1978 Triple Crown. The Preakness score was the sixth overall for an increasingly introspective trainer Bob Baffert and the fourth of his four Kentucky Derby winners to earn the right to press on to the GI Belmont Stakes with a Triple Crown on the line (Real Quiet, 1997; Silver Charm, 1998; War Emblem, 2002). For jockey Victor Espinoza, who partnered with the latter, it was his third Preakness victory and second in a row. He becomes the first rider in history to be in the saddle for three Triple Crown attempts, and will have ridden the post-time favorite in six consecutive Classics when American Pharoah takes his place at Big Sandy in three weeks' time.
"God willing, he comes out of his race well and we could be talking about history," Ahmed Zayat commented following the win. "How could I be more happy than that? This is a dream come true."
Sent to Zayat homebred Pioneerof The Nile during his second year at stud in 2011, Littleprincessemma (Yankee Gentleman), a one-time $250,000 Keeneland September acquisition by Team Zayat, produced the colt who would come to be known as American Pharoah Feb. 2, 2012. The decision was ultimately made to test the market with their colt, and he was entered as part of the Taylor Made consignment at the 2013 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga Sale. At the end of the day, the Zayat braintrust decided they could not part with their asset, took him home, turned him over to Bob Baffert and the rest, as they say, is history.
Early-week forecasts suggested inclement weather could play a role in the Preakness, but that was subsequently revised and the bulk of the day was run under ideal conditions. About an hour prior to the feature, the skies darkened over Baltimore, winds began to pick up and the track was sealed. At T-minus 10 minutes, the skies opened in a torrential downpour, necessitating the evacuation of the Pimlico infield, and by the time the field was loaded away shortly after 6:20 pm, the track had turned into a sea of mud.
"I had a great trip other than I felt like I should have been on a shark or a dolphin," deadpanned Corey Nakatani after riding Calumet Farm's Mr. Z (Malibu Moon) to a fifth-place finish.
Having drawn the one hole, there was always going to be a fair amount of strategizing for Baffert and Espinoza. When the rains came, the pilot filed a new flight plan.
"All changed with the rain, but it worked out well," explained Espinoza. "I had to bounce out of the gate to take the lead with all the rain. I took a chance and sent him as quick as I can. Sometimes you have to make decisions. That's my job. Today, I made the right decision."
With the speedy Dortmund drawn alongside and Mr. Z in the three hole, Espinoza had American Pharoah under the proverbial gun and the colt was fast enough to outfoot Mr. Z under the wire for the first time. Dortmund was relegated to third position, while the major development in the second half of the field involved Firing Line, who stumbled out of the gate, could not get a prominent spot and raced four deep into the clubhouse turn. Meanwhile, back on the business end, Espinoza was throwing all caution to the wind and was able to clear Mr. Z, though they had to go the opening quarter in :22.90 to do so. They raced past the 5 1/2-furlong pole in a crisp :46.49, positions largely unchanged, though GIII Coolmore Lexington Stakes winner Divining Rod had gotten down inside and raced up to within about five lengths of American Pharoah. Things appeared to be getting interesting at the half-mile pole, as American Pharoah's advantage had all but melted away, with Mr. Z prompting right at his saddle cloth and Dortmund poised three deep as the far-turn run loomed.
Divining Rod was also still going well while saving ground and it looked like the stage was set for something special for the final 45 seconds. But with an internal quarter in :24.93, American Pharoah had something left and began to inch clear again three-eighths of a mile down, Dortmund was making hard work of it for Martin Garcia and Divining Rod loomed the only real danger. Still confidently handled at the quarter pole, American Pharoah widened his advantage into the final eighth of a mile and was shown the whip while winning with total authority. Divining Rod tired in the final 150 yards and was caught by longshot Belmont Stakes-bound Tale of Verve for second.
Victor Espinoza was seen on the NBC broadcast dumping rainwater out of his boots from the winner's circle.
"The first thing I thought about is there is SO much water in my boots," he said during the post-race press conference before paying homage to his mount. "Today was an amazing race for him. I couldn't really see how far I was in front because there was so much water in my eyes. I wasn't really worried about it. I was so focused with American Pharoah to see how he is traveling on the messy track."
Baffert's three previous Derby winners had won by a combined three-plus lengths, and the conditioner was counting his lucky starts that he didn't have to sweat it nearly as much this time around.
"I've never won this race so easily and handily," he stated. "The other horse, Silver Charm, it was a dog fight. War Emblem was a tough race (3/4 of a length) and Real Quiet. American Pharoah and Victor galloped."
Baffert was at first uncertain as to where American Pharoah would be sent to continue his training, but a late-night tweet indicated he would board a Louisville-bound Tex Sutton flight Monday morning.
Extracts from Thoroughbred Daily News