American Pharoah settles frayed nerves in a resounding Preakness romp

Pat Forde

BALTIMORE — The first rain drops fell innocently upon Pimlico Race Course at 5:52 p.m. Post time in the Preakness Stakes was 26 minutes away.

Nobody knew what was about to be unleashed, by Mother Nature and by American Pharoah. In torrential tandem, they took Baltimore by storm.

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With lightning flashing, thunder rumbling and sheets of blowing rain soaking a Pimlico record crowd of 131,600, the Kentucky Derby champion danced through a Biblical deluge to win the Preakness by seven emphatic lengths. Provided he comes out of this race OK, the dazzling colt owned by Ahmed Zayat, trained by Bob Baffert and ridden by Victor Espinoza will be the latest in a long and futile line to attempt to end thoroughbred racing's 37-year Triple Crown drought June 6 at the Belmont.

Jockey Victor Espinoza celebrates aboard American Pharoah after winning the Preakness. (AP)
Jockey Victor Espinoza celebrates aboard American Pharoah after winning the Preakness. (AP)

That quest will be the dominant storyline going forward – but this surreal second leg of the Triple Crown deserves its own soggy moment.

The end result of the Preakness was easy – a splash in the park, really. But getting there was harrowing.

With sinister timing, the racing gods opened the heavens upon American Pharoah and his seven competitors just before the race. The Pimlico racing surface turned into soup. Water cascaded from the jockeys' helmets to their goggles to their silks; Espinoza said a lot of the rain ended up in his boots.

It was widely accepted that an off track was going to favor American Pharoah, who won the Rebel Stakes authoritatively in the slop in March. But this was far beyond an off track – this was all meteorological hell breaking loose, and it was impossible to handicap how the sensory bombardment would affect eight high-strung thoroughbreds.

In Pimlico's indoor saddling area, Baffert watched the escalating maelstrom on a TV monitor, folded his arms across his chest and internally stewed as the horses approached the post. Trainers sweat every detail, but this was far beyond the Hall of Famer's control.

"I've never been through anything like that," the 62-year-old Baffert said after winning his 11th Triple Crown race. "That was crazy."

The walk over from the stakes barn to the track had been carefree. American Pharoah, who had been alarmingly keyed up before the Derby, was calm this time. Bob held hands with his 11-year-old son, Bode, as they walked across the dirt track and the cheers from the grandstand washed over them.

"That was pretty cool, huh?" Bob said to his son when they reached the indoor paddock.

Then the first drops of rain fell, signaling that everything was about to go haywire.

Baffert watched the storm and worried about the thunder spooking his horses, American Pharoah and stablemate Dortmund. He worried about the cotton balls in both their ears – safeguards against excessive noise – becoming soaked. He wondered whether he should have taken them out.

Baffert's wife, Jill, didn't hide her stress as well. She put her hand to her mouth, looking like she might cry.

"The jockeys can't even see," she said. "How are they going to see?"

When the TV monitor showed water pooling along the rail – where American Pharoah would have to run, out of the No. 1 post – Jill turned to her husband in despair. He didn't like that visual, either.

"I saw a picture of the track with like a river running on the rail, and I thought, 'He's got to run through that?' " Baffert said. "All these things were running through my mind."

As lightning flashed, everyone wondered whether the race would be postponed. Football games and other outdoor sporting events routinely are during electrical storms, but Pimilico was full-go. Bringing the horses back into the paddock likely would have unsettled them greatly – but someone being struck by lightning seemingly would be an overriding concern.

It wasn't. The race would go on as planned. Maryland Jockey Club vice president and general manager Sal Sinatra said the track had an evacuation plan and was prepared to use it, but didn't need to. Assuredly, the jockey club also didn't want to do anything to delay the race – despite a clear risk.

Ultimately, American Pharoah would run away from the competition as planned. He was the best horse – but Espinoza also had to give him a take-charge ride to eliminate doubt.

Drawing the No. 1 post left open the specter of being buried on the rail with nowhere to run – a major complication for a naturally fast horse with a eyebrow-raising stride. So Espinoza hoped to hustle American Pharoah out of the gate and away from trouble.

He didn't break with complete alacrity, but Dortmund struggled with the wet surface out of the No. 2 hole and was squeezed back as American Pharoah took charge of the space. That left Pharoah and Mr. Z contesting the early pace, as anticipated, and the early fractions were quick – 22.9 seconds for the quarter mile, 46.49 for the half mile.

But after clearing traffic and slowing the pace on the backside, Espinoza had his horse exactly where he wanted him. Derby runner-up Firing Line had stumbled out of the gate and was no factor; Mr. Z was destined to fade; and nobody else was going to be good enough. All Baffert's stress melted away.

"Once he had him in the bit and he was turning down the backside, when I saw those ears go up, I thought, 'Oh yeah,' " Baffert said.

Bob Baffert holds the Woodlawn Vase over his son Bode's head after winning the Preakness. (AP)
Bob Baffert holds the Woodlawn Vase over his son Bode's head after winning the Preakness. (AP)

Espinoza slowed the race on the front end to the point that the pack of chasers closed in, but it was a tease. He had the horse beneath him and knew it.

"He just let him out," Baffert said, "and he throws it into overdrive."

American Pharoah opened up a four-length lead over Divining Rod in the stretch, then widened the margin to seven over runner-up Tale of Verve – another Dallas Stewart-trained closer hitting the board in a Triple Crown race at long odds (28-1). Despite the last-minute complications, at least one veteran horseman saw this coming days earlier.

Gary Stevens sat in the Pimlico grandstand second deck Thursday morning. The Hall of Fame jockey was scouting.

His Preakness ride, Firing Line, had already been to the track earlier. Stevens was here to watch the competition – American Pharoah and Dortmund – jog past. The horses weren't doing anything strenuous, but this was Stevens' first chance to lay eyes on the competition since Firing Line and the Baffert duo dueled in the stretch two weeks earlier in Louisville.

Dortmund jogged by first. Stevens said nothing.

Then came American Pharoah. Stevens said something – seemingly half-joking, but probably not, in reality.

"F---."

Stevens saw enough to know that American Pharoah was going to be very hard to beat. He had not regressed since the stress test at Churchill Downs, when the colt pulled away from Firing Line in the final sixteenth of a mile. The favorite was ready for the Preakness.

Now we will see whether he is ready for the hardest part of all – the Belmont. It's all rigged against him: fresh horses are waiting who have not competed in both earlier legs of the Triple Crown, while American Pharoah has had to endure tricky posts and tough competition and two wildly different races in different cities.

"I know everybody right now is sharpening their knives, getting ready," Baffert said in the post-race press conference.

Zayat, sitting next to Baffert, interjected: "Bring it on."

 

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