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American Pharoah makes a splash in the Preakness

After winning Preakness by seven lengths, American Pharoah needs Belmont win for first Triple Crown since 1978

Here we go again. Horse racing is dangling that Triple Crown carrot.

Except this time, when the big race rolls around June 6 at Belmont, there can be no question that there will be a different feel about this most recent hope, a 1,200-pound muscular ballet dancer named American Pharoah, whose misspelled royal name befits his equine status.

After all, why would a little thing like a 1 1/2-mile race in the biggest pressure cooker in the sport, after you've just won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in a five-week span, faze you in the least?

Certainly not when you've shrugged off the Monsoon of Baltimore and drowned the rest of the field in the 1 3/16-mile Preakness by seven lengths. After what American Pharoah did here Saturday at Pimlico Race Course, in front of a drenched record crowd of 131,680, the Belmont should be like a Thursday afternoon at Santa Anita.

On a muggy, cloudy day, the first hint of lightning in the distance came at 5:29 p.m., or 46 minutes before the Preakness was to start. The clouds gathered — big, ugly, scary ones that looked pictures on the Weather Channel when they are chasing a tornado. The raindrops started at 5:55 and the clouds opened for real about 10 minutes before post time.

The word "downpour "doesn't quite cover it. If this was a rainstorm, Santa Ana winds are hurricanes. Rain didn't fall, it blew sideways. As the horses paraded to the gate, they slowly disappeared from sight. Lightning sparked in the distance and thunder rumbled. For this kind of weather, they would have cleared out an NFL stadium.

Minutes before the race, a soggy Bob Baffert, American Pharoah's trainer, sought shelter, much like everybody else, except the poor horses and jockeys who had no choice.

He ended up in a tight little scrum of reporters who were standing with his wife, Jill, and son, Bode, next to a TV set just inside the covered saddling area.

From this vantage point, Baffert saw his date with history play out on a 20-inch screen.

Actually, it will be the star trainer's fourth date with history. Every previous time he has won the Kentucky Derby — 1997 with Silver Charm, 1998 with Real Quiet and 2002 with War Emblem — he has also won the Preakness.

Of those three chances, Real Quiet came closest to becoming No. 12 in Triple Crown history, last achieved by Affirmed in 1978. He lost by about the length of lead in a pencil and Baffert still frequently says, "I watch the replay and I think he is going to win."

American Pharoah is a horse of a different color, in so many regards.

Once he got straightened out of the gate by jockey Victor Espinoza, he jumped to the lead along the rail from his No. 1 post and was never headed.

If you are a lover of fascinating stories, a potential one developed immediately. Pharoah's main challenge came from Mr. Z, who is trained by veteran Wayne Lukas, but is named after American Pharoah's owner, Ahmed Zayat. Zayat, who owned the horse, didn't want Mr. Z to run in the Preakness after he finished well back in the Kentucky Derby, but Lukas talked his main clients, Calumet Farm, into buying Mr. Z and running him. That purchase took place Wednesday.

"We put a ridiculous number out there and they met it," Zayat said.

Had a horse named after him, by his children in a gesture of love, deprived his American Pharoah of a shot at the Triple Crown, they might have added a chapter to Ripley's Believe It Or Not.

But Mr. Z couldn't keep up. Nor could the rest of the field. They slowed in the slop. Baffert's Baryshnikov glided.

In the Baffert scrum, wife Jill squirmed and grimaced. Reporters who happened to be near the only TV set in sight squeezed closer, seeking scoops, or at least nuggets.

Surrounded by all this, Baffert said little. He worried aloud that American Pharoah's cotton earplugs would get soggy.

"I should have taken them out," he said.

The camera showed a river running along the rail. Jill wondered if that wasn't unfair for the horse on the rail. Baffert said nothing could be done now.

Then American Pharoah rounded the final turn, headed for home and the placid Baffert, seeing the ears perk up, let loose. He gave it his "go-go," and Pharoah went-went.

Espinoza, who has taken heat for hitting Pharoah 32 times down the stretch at the Derby and has been sanctioned for another whipping incident by the California Horse Racing Board, figuratively thumbed his nose at the CHRB in the run for home. He barely hit American Pharoah, instead kind of holding the whip alongside and popping it. The winner paid $3.80, $3.40 and $2.80.

Behind him, the field was slip-sliding away. Longshot Tale Of Verve got second under Joel Rosario and paid $19 and $8.80. Divining Rod sloshed to third and paid $5.20.

Baffert's other entry, the highly regarded Dortmund, got fourth and Mr. Z fifth.

His jockey, Corey Nakatani, got off the best weather line.

"I had a great trip," he said, "other than I felt I should have been on a shark or a dolphin."

For American Pharoah, history awaits. This marks the 14th time since Affirmed in '78, and the ninth since Silver Charm, that there has been a shot at a Triple Crown. That includes I'll Have Another, who got there in 2012 and then couldn't run in the Belmont Stakes because an injury.

Of his chance at history, Zayat said, "I'm absolutely elated."

He added, "I'm also happy for the sport. A sport without a star is not a sport."

Baffert called it "a magical moment."

A beaten Lukas said, "For American Pharoah to run like he did in those conditions was big. It says a lot about that horse."

Which is exactly what everybody else will be saying about him in the next three weeks.

bill.dwyre @LATimes.com.

Twitter: @DwyreLATimes.

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