Zayat Stable's American Pharoah gave himself a shot at the Triple Crown after a commanding victory in the $1.5 million Xpressbet.com Preakness Stakes (gr. I) May 16 before a record crowd of 131,680 at Pimlico Race Course (VIDEO).
Ridden by Victor Espinoza for trainer Bob Baffert, American Pharoah set fast fractions after taking control from post 1 and pulled away from his foes in the lane. The tempo slowed throughout because of the early pace, however, and the son of Pioneerof the Nile finished the 1 3/16 miles in 1:58.45 on a track made sloppy by a downpour that began with 10 minutes to post.
American Pharoah was bred by his owner in Kentucky.
"He's just an incredible horse," Baffert said immediately after the race. "What he does is amazing. Great horses do great things, and I think he showed that today."
As for the June 6 Belmont Stakes (gr. I), final leg of the Triple Crown, Baffert said he needed time to let the Preakness win, which followed American Pharoah's victory in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), sink in.
"I don't even want to think about the (Triple Crown) right now," Baffert said. "I want to enjoy this. It's tough (at Belmont Park). I've been there and I don't want to think about it for another couple of weeks.
"We'll just see how the horse comes back (after the Preakness). I want to enjoy this, and I want to thank everyone for being so nice to us. It has been a great ride so far."
Owner Ahmed Zayat was more willing to discuss the Triple Crown possibility.
"We could be talking about history," Zayat said. "How could I be happier than that?"
It was the sixth Preakness victory for Baffert, and he will get his fourth shot at a Triple Crown. Silver Charm, Real Quiet, and War Emblem all failed to win the Belmont Stakes after taking the first two legs.
Espinoza will get his third chance at the Crown. He rode War Emblem for Baffert, and last year won the first two legs with eventual Horse of the Year California Chrome .
"I hope the third one is the charm," Espinoza said.
The forecast of late afternoon thunderstorms proved accurate as a line of storms headed toward Maryland earlier in the afternoon. The wind picked up as the horses were being saddled on the turf course and in the indoor paddock, and as they headed to the track, heavy rain began to fall.
The dirt surface, which had been sealed about an hour prior to the race, was quickly downgraded to sloppy. And it played to the liking of American Pharoah, who won the Rebel Stakes (gr. II) on a sloppy track at Oaklawn Park in March.
Espinoza clearly wanted the lead as stablemate Dortmund and Mr. Z also fired from the gate from posts 2 and 3, respectively. By the time the opening quarter-mile was accomplished in :22.90, American Pharoah was on a loose lead, tracked by Mr. Z and Dortmund.
"He broke a tiny bit slow, so I had to push him to go to the front," Espinoza said. "Once he got to the lead he was very comfortable. I wasn't going to try to get the lead, but after the rain I changed my mind."
The leader clicked off a half-mile in :46.49 and six furlongs in 1:11.42 with Mr. Z and Dortmund several lengths behind. Divining Rod rode the rail and slipped through to appear a threat at the leader after the one mile went in a much slower 1:37.74.
American Pharoah, however, still had something left. Divining Rod flattened out not long after Mr. Z and Dortmund dropped out of contention. That left late-running Tale of Verve as the only horse gaining ground, but American Pharoah was long gone.
The final time of 1:58.46 was the slowest for the Preakness since 1956, when Fabius was the winner over Needles and No Regrets on a fast track in 1:58 2/5.
American Pharoah returned $3.80, $3.40, and $2.80 across the board. Tale of Verve paid $19 and $8.80, while Divining Rod was worth $5.20 to show.
Firing Line , the second choice at 3-1 after his excellent second-place finish in the Kentucky Derby, never got closer than fifth and finished seventh, ahead of last-place finisher Bodhisattva. The official chart said Firing Line stumbled and splayed his front legs leaving the gate.
"His second jump out, he stumbled badly," trainer Simon Callaghan said. "That took his momentum, and he never really got hold of the track. Nothing went right with all that rain coming. I don't know (about running him in the Belmont Stakes)."
Trainer Dallas Stewart said Tale of Verve, who broke his maiden in his previous start at the Preakness distance in his sixth attempt, is headed to the Belmont Stakes after his second-place finish.
"What a horse," Stewart said. "I had no idea where he was in the race. He's a tremendous horse and he's getting better all the time. Congratulations to the winner. We'll see him at Belmont. I think this validated what he is. He's an improving horse."
Trainer Arnaud Delacour said he was pleased with the effort of Divining Rod, winner of the grade III Coolmore Lexington Stakes (gr. III) in his previous start.
"We are very happy with being third in a grade I stakes," he said. "He was right there with a great trip, and thanks to (jockey Javier Castellano) for that because he gave him a great ride."
Dortmund, also trained by Baffert, couldn't muster a stretch kick despite having a good position and ended up seven lengths behind Divining Rod at the finish. Jockey Martin Garcia said the Big Brown colt didn't care for the sloppy track and didn't break well from the gate.
Mr. Z, purchased by Calumet Farm from Zayat Stables three days before the Preakness, finished fifth, a length ahead of Danzig Moon. D. Wayne Lukas, trainer of Mr. Z, said he believes the "adverse conditions likely affected seven of the eight horses."
Mark Casse, who trains Danzig Moon, said the Malibu Moon colt didn't relish the trip.
"It was pretty bad," Casse said. "He hasn't stopped coughing since he came back after the race. That happens when they eat all that stuff. You work and work and work to get them ready, and you just want to have a shot at a fair race. If they beat you, they beat you."
Trainer Jose Corrales offered no excuses for Federico Tesio Stakes winner Bodhisattva.
"He didn't try," Corrales said. "One morning in training, when he was behind other horses in the rain, he didn't try. It was the same thing today. It wasn't the race we were expecting, but life goes on."