BALTIMORE (AP) — That was easy, wasn't it?
Two weeks after struggling but winning the Kentucky Derby, American Pharoah ignored thunder, lightning, rain and the opposition and splashed his way to a seven-length victory in the Preakness on Saturday at Pimlico Race Course.
And now, it's on to the Belmont Stakes on June 6 for a shot at the Triple Crown and racing immortality.
"He's just an amazing horse," trainer Bob Baffert glowed after winning his sixth Preakness. "Everyone talks about the greatness and it's just starting to show now. To me, they have to prove it. Today, the way he did it, he just ran so fast. It was like poetry in motion."
Here are some things learned about American Pharoah from the Preakness:
Inside or outside, American Pharoah is one tough customer. Saddled with an unfavorable No. 1 post, the 3-year-old colt broke a bit slow, but was urged to the lead by jockey Victor Espinoza. In the eight-horse field, only Mr. Z gave chase but for just a little while. AP, as owner Ahmed Zayat sometimes calls him, motored along the rail and cruised home for his sixth straight win. In the Derby, he drew the No. 18 post, started from No. 16 after two horses were scratched, and won by a length despite not being on his A game. For the upcoming Belmont Stakes, at 1 1/2 miles the longest and most grueling of the three races, post position won't be an issue. By the way, the last horse to win the Preakness from the No. 1 post before Saturday was Tabasco Cat in 1994.
NO SLOP FOR YOU
Rain or shine, track condition is not a problem. American Pharoah gave every indication he could deal with a torrential downpour two months ago in Arkansas. A champion as a 2-year-old, his debut this year came in the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park. He won there, too, by 6 1/4 lengths. So once the skies opened on Saturday, there wasn't too much concern about how the sloppy track would affect his performance. "So much rain we had, and so much water, it's insane," winning jockey Victor Espinoza said. "American Pharoah was traveling super in there." How bad was it? "I saw a picture of the track with a river running on the rail, and I thought he's got to run through that?" Baffert said.
A two-week turnaround took nothing out of American Pharoah. Maybe it did, but it didn't look that way. His stride was a graceful as ever — much better than it was in the Derby — and as Baffert says, he "floats over the track wherever he goes." In the weeks leading up to the Belmont, though, Baffert knows that can change. After all, this will be the trainer's fourth attempt to give racing its first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. American Pharoah has won six of his seven lifetime starts, and looks as strong as ever. Then again, 2004 Derby winner Smarty Jones looked awesome, too, after his record 11 1/2-length win in the Preakness — but three weeks later in the Belmont, he was run down in the final yards by Birdstone. "I've seen horses that you don't see it until two weeks later (after the Preakness)," Baffert said. "That's when it starts showing up on these horses. I've been through it. About two weeks out, you'll start seeing if it's getting to them a little bit, and that's why it's so difficult (to win a Triple Crown).
COTTON PICKIN' RAIN
So now we all know American Pharoah is fitted with ear plugs, or his ears are stuffed with cotton, for his races because he's sensitive to noise. Not a good thing for a horse going for a Triple Crown and performing before 100,000-plus fans. Nonetheless, the cotton worked again, and he was as attentive as he needed to be. He may have covered the 1 3-16 miles in the slow time of 1:58.46, but he finished ahead of everyone else and was not distracted. "I could tell they (the horses) didn't like it when they got pelted like that," Baffert said. "And I was worried about the cotton balls in his ears. How is he going to react? Maybe I should take them out." No need.
CAN HE DO IT?
Can American Pharoah end a 37-year Triple Crown drought that began after Affirmed became the 11th horse to sweep the Derby, Preakness and Belmont in 1978. Here's a sampling of opinions from three Triple Crown winning connections:
Penny Chenery (owner, Secretariat): "The question will be how quickly he recovers and doesn't lose too much weight. He seems to have a level head, though, and seems to be in command of his talents."
Steve Cauthen (jockey, Affirmed): "He looks like the real deal."
Ron Turcotte (jockey, Secretariat): "The sport needs a Triple Crown winner and he could very well be the one."
Now that American Pharoah has dusted off his rivals in the Derby and Preakness, who's left to take him on in the Belmont? Well, it sure looks like a bunch of Derby also-rans who skipped the Preakness are going to show up in a bid to play Triple Crown spoiler. Among them are a bunch trained by Todd Pletcher: Materiality (sixth in the Derby), Carpe Diem (10th) and Peter Pan Stakes winner Madefromlucky. Also probable are Frosted (fourth in the Derby), Keen Ice (seventh), Mubtaahij (eighth) and Frammento (11th). "I really don't think about the third leg yet," Baffert said. "It's going to be tough. I've always said this is the easiest of the three legs, and the next race is going to be ... everybody right now is sharpening their knives getting ready."
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