Thanks to American Pharoah, horse racing will stay relevant to most of America for three more weeks.
The 3-year-old brown colt made sure of that Saturday when he swept to a commanding seven-length victory in the 140th Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore.
He became the 14th horse to win both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness since Affirmed won the Triple Crown in 1978. The 13 horses that came before him all failed to win that third race, the Belmont Stakes.
The race was run in a driving rainstorm but it didn’t matter to American Pharoah. Jockey Victor Espinoza hustled him to the lead through fast early fractions and slowed him enough through the backstretch that he had plenty left for the last eighth of a mile.
Espinoza did not plan to run American Pharoah on the lead but when the rains came he changed his strategy.
"After the hard rain, and the track getting a little sloppy," Espinoza said, "I said I’m going to take a shot … and take the lead. On the inside it would be tough to get behind all that water."
Espinoza admitted after half a mile he didn’t really know where any of the horses were at so he just focused on his horse.
This will be trainer Bob Baffert’s third try for a Triple Crown. Every time he has won the Derby, with Silver Charm in 1997 and Real Quiet in 1998, he has won the Preakness. So maybe this was to be expected.
Longshots filled the rest of the board with Tale of Verve finishing second and Divining Rod placing third.
American Pharoah paid $3.80, $3.40 and $2.80. Tale of Verve returned $19.00 and $8.80 while Divining Rod paid $5.20 to show.
Dortmund, third in the Kentucky Derby, finshed fourth and Firing Line, second in the Derby, was eased in the stretch and finished seventh of eight horses.
“When the rains came down I got a lttle leery but I thought if he’s a great horse he’ll pull it through,” said Baffert, who runs his stable out of Santa Anita Park and lives in Arcadia. “Victor ran a tremendous race and just let him run. That’s the way he likes to run.”
It was American Pharoah’s sixth straight win in seven starts. He started his career last year at Del Mar and then shipped to Santa Anita, where he won the Grade 1 Front Runner. But Baffert had one of those good problems.
American Pharoah’s stablemate is Dortmund, who some thought was the better of the two. Rather than have the two run against each other in California, and possibly kill one of their Kentucky Derby bids, Baffert sent American haroah to Arkansas. It was there that he won the Rebel Stakes in sloppy conditions and then the Arkansas Derby by a mind blowing eight lengths.
It set up a classic battle of three great horses two weeks ago at Churchill Downs. American Pharoah was stuck on the outside most of the race but swept past Firing Line in the stretch to win by a length. Dortmund was tiring on the rail in that race, which is 1/16 of a mile longer than the Preakness.
American haroah was ridden very hard by Espinoza in the Derby, going to the whip 32 times down the stretch. It seems as if that ride wasn’t really as tough as it appeared since American Pharoah certainly had more than enough on Saturday.
We’ve been down this path twice recently with Southern California connected horses. Three years ago, I’ll Have Another won the first two legs of the Triple Crown only to scratch out of the Belmont Stakes on the day before the race. Last year, California Chrome came into the Belmont with expectations high but finished fourth, behind three horses that had not run in the Preakness.
It’s the three races at three different distances in five weeks that makes the Triple Crown so difficult to win. Twelve of the last 13 winners of the Belmont didn’t run in the Preakness.
We’ve been here before. Will American Pharoah be the horse everyone has been waiting 37 years for?
We’ll know in three weeks.