Zayat Stables' homebred American Pharoah continued his tour-de-force of the Oaklawn Park 3-year-old prep series April 11, blowing away seven rivals in the $1 million Arkansas Derby (gr. I) (VIDEO) with an impressive eight-length score.
Shifting from his usual front-running tactics, the Pioneerof the Nile runner tracked just off the pace set by longshot Bridget's Big Luvy. He reeled that one in with ease heading into the far turn and drew away under a hand ride from jockey Victor Espinoza, winning geared down with his ears pricked as they were from the start.
"I know that he is a very talented and very fast horse, but today he showed us a different dimension," Ahmed Zayat remarked. "This horse can do anything. He's brilliant."
Last year's 2-year-old champion, a fleet-footed bay trained by Hall of Fame horseman Bob Baffert, covered 1 1/8 miles in 1:48.52 on a fast track while heavily favored at odds of 1-9. Far Right closed from last to nip Zayat-owned Mr. Z for second. Madefromlucky was fourth.
"Bob was concerned if he would rate. He showed me today he will rate," said assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes.
The winner earned 100 points on the road to the May 2 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), boosting his total to 160 and ensured a spot in the 20-horse starting gate on the first Saturday in May. He ranks fourth on the leaderboard behind Louisiana Derby (gr. I) winner International Star, Kaleem Shah's fellow Baffert trainee and Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) winner Dortmund , and Toyota Blue Grass (gr. I) winner Carpe Diem .
"He's matured substantially," Baffert said. "We just worried about getting a clean break and he did, and then Victor rode him with a lot of confidence. When that other horse (Bridget's Big Luvy) got off to that lead, it was either that he's going to rate or he's going to be empty today. He's a good horse and he keeps moving forward. I don't want to get ahead of myself. but Dortmund is another one who we don't yet know how good he is. We've got a one-two punch and that's a good position to be in."
Far Right and Mr. Z also secured places in the Derby field and are likely to enter; Southwest Stakes (gr. III) winner Far Right ranks 10th with 62 points and multiple graded stakes-placed Mr. Z is 18th with 34.
"Today we saw a great race by a superhorse," said Far Right's trainer, Ron Moquett. "(Jockey) Mike (Smith) said that when he saw that horse kick clear, he was just going to do enough to get second and he did. At that point it didn't matter if it was two lengths or 10 lengths, second is still second.
"We'll hope for maybe some different circumstances (in the Kentucky Derby) and just like everybody else going there, we'll need some of the best luck. We certainly showed we belong."
"I was real pleased," said Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who trains Mr. Z for the Zayats. "We kind of put it back together today. I thought we were going to be second, and then damn, he gassed a little bit there. I put the blinkers back on and we got back to what he needed. Coming back in two weeks (from the grade I Louisiana Derby), I think if we'd had more time we could have been a clear second. Obviously, we were not going to beat the winner. The winner is a special horse. Bob had him trained to the minute. He's special. With our horse, it's on to the (Kentucky) Derby. We picked up enough points to get in."
American Pharoah won the March 14 Rebel Stakes (gr. II) at Oaklawn in his season debut and heads into the Derby with just two starts in 2015. He has now taken four races in a row by a combined 22 1/4 lengths, a streak begun with the Del Mar Futurity (gr. I) and FrontRunner Stakes (gr. I) last September.
"It wasn't that we needed the points. We needed the race," Barnes said. "He needed another race under his belt and he did enough today. We'll cruise into Churchill Downs and give him one work there and we'll be ready."
The Arkansas Derby victory was a second for Baffert, who won with eventual Kentucky Derby runner-up Bodemeister in 2012. It appeared just as easy for American Pharoah as his Rebel win in the slop, during which he raced with a sprung front right shoe. Sitting about four lengths behind Bridget's Big Luvy as he went a quarter in :22.77 and a half in :45.99, American Pharoah began his move through three-quarters in 1:10.54 and struck the lead turning for home.
From there, it was only a contest for second, as Espinoza sat chilly and American Pharoah lengthened away, increasing his advantage through a 1:35.94 mile and galloping clear under the wire.
"The way this horse runs is unbelievable," said Espinoza, who won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes (gr. I) last year on eventual Horse of the Year California Chrome . "I don't feel like he's running that fast and then I look back and he's so far ahead. He was doing it by himself and doing it easy."
With the victory, American Pharoah improved his record to four wins from five starts, with earnings of $1,411,500. Bred in Kentucky out of the Yankee Gentleman mare Littleprincessemma, he was entered in the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga yearling sale in 2013, but his connections bought him back from the Taylor Made Sales Agency consignment through Ingordo Bloodstock for $300,000.