Horse players had been checking the weather radar all afternoon — there was a storm rumbling toward Pimlico and a wet track, well, that made the Kentucky Derby winner American Pharoah a lock to win the Preakness Stakes and the second leg of the Triple Crown.
The colt's trainer, Bob Baffert, wasn't so sure. Yes, he knew American Pharoah had sliced his way like a Jet Ski to a six-and-a-quarter-length win two months ago on a sloppy track in Arkansas. But as the colt and his seven rivals stepped onto the track here Saturday, thunder was booming and a deluge had chased thousands of raucous infield revelers to seek cover and made the jockeys in their colorful silks and aboard their horses barely visible.
"I was getting a little leery," Baffert said. "These horses, you could tell they didn't like getting pelted."
Victor Espinoza, American Pharoah's rider, however, was experiencing a moment of clarity. He was drenched and uncomfortable, and as he walked his colt in a circle, he made a decision. He was going to get American Pharoah out of the gate quickly and take this field gate to wire and to victory and, presumably, to New York and the Belmont Stakes with a chance to become the 12th Triple Crown champion in history, and the first since Affirmed in 1978.
Victor Espinoza and American Pharoah finished seven lengths ahead of Tale of Verve, a long shot, after fighting off a challenging field. Credit Maddie Meyer/Getty Images "I didn't want to get mud kicked into my horse's face," he said.
So Espinoza inched American Pharoah into the No. 1 hole and waited for the starting bell to ring. When it did, however, his colt's back end swung out, causing him to leave a bit late. Espinoza smooched to him, and scrubbed his neck, and suddenly American Pharoah was floating like a swamp buggy atop the water, leaving first Mr. Z and then his stablemate Dortmund in his wake.
He splashed through a half-mile in 46.49 seconds and six furlongs in 1:11.42. It was quick, dangerously quick. "It was a fast pace, but I had no choice," Espinoza said. "But as soon as I took the lead, I knew that was it."
Behind him, Corey Nakatani, aboard Mr. Z, believed he had American Pharoah measured. "He was in it," he said of his colt.
Martin Garcia, atop Dortmund, sensed he was in trouble. His colt is a strapping 17 hands but had never had mud kicked in his face. Garcia knew his colt was not comfortable.
Before the race, Baffert told Espinoza that Mr. Z was going to be difficult to shake. In fact, the colt was not supposed to be in the field at all. He began the week owned by Ahmed Zayat, the owner of American Pharoah. He did not want to run Mr. Z two weeks after a 13th-place finish in the Derby.
But the colt's trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, did. So on Wednesday morning, before the draw, Zayat got an offer to buy the colt from another of Lukas's clients, Calumet Farm.
In the paddock, watching American Pharoah gliding down the backside, Baffert was no longer worried. Instead, he felt a shiver and a flutter in his heart.
"I saw his ears go up, and I thought, oh yeah, oh yeah," he said.
Espinoza, left, and the trainer Bob Baffert in the winner's circle. American Pharoah has given Baffert a fourth chance at the Triple Crown. Credit Rob Carr/Getty Images Espinoza was relaxed atop American Pharoah as he leaned toward the rail and braced for the stretch. Baffert's wife, Jill, tugged on his sleeve as the pack seemed to close in on American Pharoah. "He's waiting, he's waiting, to let him go," Baffert told her.
When Mr. Z got within a half-length, Espinoza crossed his reins, gave American Pharoah his head and essentially enjoyed the ride. The rider and his colt hit the stretch four lengths ahead and then rolled down the lane with the force of a waterfall. By the time Espinoza crossed the finish line, he and American Pharoah were seven lengths ahead of the long shots Tale of Verve and Divining Rod.
"Great horses do great things," Baffert said.
From the New York Times:
- For American Pharoah's owners, chaotic stretch after Derby win
- American Pharoah is a fan favorite, but not vice versa
- On horse racing: Bob Baffert already has only crown he seeks
The son of Pioneervof the Nile earned a $900,000 check to plump his earning past $3.4 million and rewarded his backers with $3.80 for a $2 bet. His final time of 1:58.46 was slow, but the ease of his victory looked spectacular.
With water filling his riding boots, his moment of clarity had paid big dividends for Espinoza.
"Sometimes you do the right decisions for the best of the horse," he said. "Just trying to balance out there and go for the lead, and it worked out well."
So Espinoza is New York-bound for a date with destiny for the second year in row and for the third time in his career. Last year, California Chrome's Triple Crown bid fell short, as did Espinoza's attempt aboard War Emblem in 2002.
"I hope the third one is a charm," he said.
For Baffert, this will be his fourth stab at horse racing's Holy Grail. Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998) and War Emblem — none of them were able to sweep the series. For a while at least, he said, he was going to banish the mile-and-a-half "Test of the Champion" from his thoughts. Silver Charm lost by a half-length, Real Quiet by a nose, and War Emblem at the start when he stumbled out of the gate.
"It's tough up there," he said of the Belmont. "I've been there, and I don't want to think about it for a couple of weeks. There's going to be a whole new crew waiting for us. Let me enjoy this."