By Gene Menez
About 15 minutes before Kentucky Derby winner American Pharoah and seven challengers left the starting gate Saturday for the 140th Preakness Stakes, the skies opened up. Rain poured down. The record crowd of 131,680 scattered for cover. What had been a beautiful day of racing at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore turned into a watery mess.
And thoughts raced through the head of American Pharoah's trainer, Bob Baffert.
How's the horse going to react to the thunder?
Were the cotton balls in the American Pharoah's ears (which are used to limit his reaction to crowd noise) wet, and should he have removed them?
How's the horse going to handle the river of water that had formed along the rail of the racetrack?
"All these things were going through my mind," Baffert said afterward.
But neither slop nor rain nor seven top three-year-olds could stop American Pharoah. The horse regarded by some as the next Seattle Slew was, to borrow a term coined by former race caller Tom Durkin, splashtastic in winning the second leg of the Triple Crown, cruising wire-to-wire and crushing the field by seven easy lengths. The margin of victory was the largest in the Preakness since Smarty Jones' victory in 2004.
"He's just an amazing horse," said Baffert, who won his sixth Preakness Stakes. "Everyone talks about the greatness, and it's just starting to show now. To me, [the horses] have to prove it. Today the way he did it, he just ran so fast. It was like poetry in motion."
There was joy in Mudville (and also in Elmont, N.Y., which is home of the Belmont Stakes, and at NBC, which will televise the third leg of the Triple Crown). Mighty American Pharoah did not strike out and, thus, has a chance to finally end the 36-year Triple Crown drought and become racing's 12th Triple Crown winner with a victory at the Belmont on June 6.
If he runs as well in three weeks as he did on Saturday, he will be tough to beat. Although he broke a bit slowly, American Pharoah was urged to the front by jockey Victor Espinoza. He was quickly joined there by long shot Mr. Z, who was sold by American Pharoah's owner, Ahmed Zayat, to Calumet Farm on Wednesday. The friend-turned-foe pushed his former stablemate through an opening half mile in 46.49 seconds, faster than the fractions of the Derby.
American Pharoah opened up a three-length lead on the backstretch, but that margin dwindled to a half-length over Mr. Z and one length over Dortmund as the horses approached the far turn. At that point, Baffert's wife, Jill, told her husband, "They're coming to him." But Baffert knew better; Espinoza was allowing the horse to get a breather. "No, [Victor's] waiting," Baffert told his wife. "He's waiting."
That's as close as his rivals would get. American Pharoah slowly increased his margin and then accelerated at the top of the stretch as Mr. Z and Dortmund dropped back. Espinoza said he couldn't see exactly how far ahead he was because of the moisture on his goggles.
Unlike the stretch drive of the Derby (in which he was whipped more than 30 times), American Pharoah needed only mild urging the final two furlongs of the Preakness. He came home seven lengths in front of 29-1 long shot Tale of Verve, who passed tired horses in the stretch, with Divining Rod another length back.
American Pharoah's two most touted challengers entering the race, Dortmund and Firing Line, finished fourth and seventh, respectively, in the eight-horse field. Firing Line jockey Gary Stevens told NBC after the race, "Back from my vantage point, which was a long ways back, I can honestly say it was going to take a superhorse to beat what might be a superhorse in American Pharoah today."
At the Belmont Stakes on June 6, the world will learn if American Pharoah is indeed a superhorse and if he is on the level of Seattle Slew, War Admiral, Citation and Secretariat. Assuming he does not encounter any soundness issues, American Pharoah will enter the starting gate a heavy favorite in the 1 ½-mile Test of the Champion. But he is likely to face a slew of accomplished horses who skipped one or both of the first two legs of the Triple Crown, led by Wood Memorial champion Frosted (fourth in the Derby) and Florida Derby winner Materiality (sixth).
"It's going to be tough," Baffert said. "I've always said [the Preakness] is the easiest of the three legs, and the next race is going to be … I know everybody right now is sharpening their knives getting ready."
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Gene Menez is a writer and editor who spent almost 14 years at Sports Illustrated and has covered dozens of sublime performances (Tiger Woods in the 2000 U.S. Open; Steph Curry in the '08 NCAA Tournament) and fantastic finishes ('99 Ryder Cup; '04 Belmont Stakes). He lives with his beautiful wife and 22-month-old girl in Austin, Texas. You can follow him on Twitter @genemenez.