The knock against American Pharoah was that he had never really been tested.
Not by any colts outside Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert’s barn and, perhaps most telling, not by stablemate Dortmund because of Baffert’s strategy to keep them both on course for the 141st Kentucky Derby.
On Saturday at Churchill Downs, American Pharoah proved he could overcome a challenge. And, perhaps, that he might be worthy of all the noise about ending the Triple Crown drought.
With jockey Victor Espinoza driving him down the stretch, and a record crowd of 170,513 roaring, American Pharoah overtook Dortmund and Firing Line for a victory that puts him on track for a run at history.
“He’s still a lightly raced horse,” Baffert said. “So he’s figuring it out in a big way.”
The come-from-behind win gave Baffert his fourth Kentucky Derby victory, his first since Espinoza piloted War Emblem in the 2002 Run for the Roses.
“It’s a fantasy moment for us,” Baffert said in the winner’s circle. “It’s unbelievable that I’m standing here for the fourth time.”
It was the second consecutive Derby victory for Espinoza, who rode California Chrome last year.
“You think so many things before the race, sometimes you get a headache,” Espinoza said. “And then I said, ‘You know what. This is it.’ It never gets old.”
No one was happier than owner Ahmed Zayat, who had endured three second-place Derby finishes.
Pioneerof The Nile suffered one of those in a 2009 Derby won by 50-1 longshot Mine That Bird. So it was perhaps fitting that American Pharoah, the son of Pioneerof The Nile, gave Zayat his first victory.
“Finally,” said Zayat, who collected the $1.4-million winner’s share of the $2.2-million purse. “No more seconds.”
American Pharoah covered the 1 1/4-mile track in 2 minutes 3.02 seconds. He started as the betting favorite at odds of 5-2 and paid $7.80, $5.80 and $4.20.
Baffert said he had been “on pins and needles all week long,” as reporters, fans and oddsmakers hyped the 1-2 punch that American Pharoah and the unbeaten Dortmund presented.
Dortmund’s 6-0 record going into the Derby matched that of 1977 Derby winner Seattle Slew and 2004 winner Smarty Jones.
American Pharoah had won four consecutive races after finishing fifth in his first race.
He initially drew the No. 18 post position, a spot that kept him away from the crowd in what could have been a 20-horse field. He moved to the No. 17 position, a spot that had never produced a Kentucky Derby winner, when Stanford was scratched Thursday. The defections of El Kabeir on Friday and International Star on Saturday morning ultimately had him starting with only 14 horses to his left and three on his right.
Baffert gave Espinoza simple instructions.
“He’s like, ‘Man, I don’t know. Just go ride your race,’” Espinoza recalled, laughing. “I said, ‘Good idea, Bob.’”
American Pharoah was in good position as the field went into the first turn. He was in third place at the quarter-mile and trailed Dortmund and Firing Line through the mile marker.
As Baffert watched the three horses go down the back stretch, he thought Dortmund would win.
“He was cruising,” Baffert said.
But with five-sixteenths of a mile left in the race, Firing Line jockey Gary Stevens instinctively felt something.
“I took a peek behind me and I saw the Zayat colors,” he said. “I knew who it was. I wasn’t too surprised at what I saw.”
Neither was Baffert.
“I heard my wife say, ‘He’s not going to do it,” Baffert said. “And I said, ‘Oh, he’s going to do it.’ I just knew that he was digging down. “
American Pharoah took the lead down the stretch just ahead of Firing Line and held off a charge to finish in front by a length.
“It was the first time I had to get after him and the first time he was running behind two horses,” Espinoza said. “Everything was new for him. So he was like, ‘What’s going on here?’ … Finally, he figured it out.”
Now it’s on to the Preakness in two weeks.
Baffert said he would assess American Pharoah and Dortmund’s status for the race Sunday. No horse has swept the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont since Affirmed in 1978.
Baffert, a resident of La Cañada Flintridge, was relieved to get the first step out of the way with a Derby win that came a dozen years after his last.
“I don’t know if I can go another 12 years like this,” he said.