The Kentucky Derby's Big Three rolled into Maryland for the 140th Preakness Stakes on Saturday. And while the skies didn't comply, with wind and heavy rain soaking Pimlico Race Course shortly before post time, Kentucky Derby winner American Pharoah had little trouble routing the field by seven lengths. American Pharoah will now head to the Belmont Stakes on June 6, where he could become now the first Triple Crown winner since 1978.
American Pharoah, along with Firing Line and Dortmund, comprised a trio that owned a far more lovely Churchill Downs two weeks ago. The three horses ran together at the front of a stacked pack at the Derby, but were part of only an eight-horse field at the Preakness.
This marked the first time the Preakness ran on a wet track, in this case the epitome of "sloppy" conditions, since 1983. Conventional wisdom held that the rain would only help the powerful stride of American Pharoah, and that proved to be exactly the case.
From the No. 1 post position, American Pharoah bolted to the lead immediately. Only Mr. Z, another horse with experience on wet tracks, came with him. But by the half-mile mark, American Pharoah had posted a faster time than in the Kentucky Derby. Mr. Z and Dortmund briefly caught up to American Pharoah between the third and fourth turns, but American Pharoah had little trouble pulling away on the final straightaway to win in 1:58:46.
The Preakness serves as the pivotal moment in one of sports' most elusive rewards, the Triple Crown. Every Kentucky Derby winner enters the Preakness with a target on its hindquarters. It's rare, however, that a Derby winner enters the Preakness with momentum like American Pharoah. For most of the day, the horse held 4-5 odds to win, with Dortmund (4-1) and Firing Line (3-1) relatively close behind.
Bob Baffert, trainer of both American Pharoah and Dortmund, has called the Preakness the easiest of the three races of the Triple Crown. Coming into this race, Baffert had sent all three of his Derby winners to victory in the Preakness. In training two of the top three horses in the field, Baffert was, in effect, competing against himself.
American Pharoah entered the race under a touch of controversy, as jockey Victor Espinoza drew criticism for using his whip as many as 33 times during the Derby. Animal rights activists criticized Espinoza, but racing advocates noted that whips of today are far less punishing than those of past years.
"The horse is my life and my passion," Espinoza told NBC Sports' Bob Costas shortly before the race. "The last thing I'd want to do is hurt any horse."
The question now is whether American Pharoah can close the deal on one of the most impressive feats in American sports. No horse has won the Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978, although 14 have now won the first two races, including three in the past four years.
It's a challenge all its own, but a recent win-at-all-costs development has made the challenge that much harder. Those horses that don't win at Churchill Downs often don't bother to show up at Pimlico – more specifically, their trainers hold them out – only to return for the third leg of the Triple Crown, the Belmont Stakes, with fresher legs. It's a relatively recent practice, and one exemplified by trainer Todd Pletcher, who held four Derby horses – Materiality, Carpe Diem, Competitive Edge and Stanford – out of the Preakness. Expect at least Materiality to be at the Belmont in three weeks, as well as Frosted, which also skipped the Preakness after finishing fourth in the Derby.
The horses which skip the Preakness are more rested and, consequently, more of a challenge to any horse who attempts all three races.
Ducking the Preakness is a Floyd Mayweather approach – maximize win opportunity while minimizing risk and completely disregarding competitive or entertainment concerns – and, predictably, it's about as popular as Mayweather's style. Last year, California Chrome co-owner Steve Coburn called the trainers who used such a method to deny his horse the Triple Crown "cowards" and "cheaters," and if the same method denies American Pharoah a Triple Crown, expect similar grumbling, if not necessarily in the same words.
And keep up with Jay over on Facebook, too.