It was the reigning king who finally lifted the curtain on a late-developing Preakness week.
American Pharoah could not have grasped the recent turmoil in this city or the hopes so many horse racing lovers have attached to him because of his brilliant talent.
But as Baltimore tries to return to normalcy two weeks after riots prompted by Freddie Gray’s death, the sight of the Kentucky Derby champion striding off his trailer under blue skies seemed fittingly familiar. The champ’s arrival is an annual ritual at Pimlico Race Course, and American Pharoah appeared suitably regal playing his part.
“Is that him?” onlookers whispered Wednesday afternoon. Dozens of cameras clicked as trainer Bob Baffert led the muscular bay colt for his first walk around the stakes barn.
American Pharoah’s towering chestnut stablemate Dortmund followed. Then came their chief rival, the strapping Derby runner-up Firing Line, led by his youthful English trainer, Simon Callaghan. The trio had arrived on the same charter flight from Louisville, Ky.
These three California-based horses battled in stirring fashion May 2 at Churchill Downs, and they’ll attempt to do it again Saturday in the 140th Preakness, Baltimore’s largest sporting event. American Pharoah was made the 4-5 favorite during the Preakness draw later Wednesday, but was given the unfavorable No. 1 post position.
“We’re certainly going to give it our best shot,” Callaghan said. “I think it’s going to be pretty close.”
Baffert, seeking his sixth Preakness victory, opted not to put American Pharoah in Pimlico’s traditional corner stall reserved for the Derby champion. Crowds sometimes unsettle him, and he’ll instead spend the rest of the week in a middle stall, removed from the hubbub.
But make no mistake, all eyes will remain fixed on this gifted colt as he attempts to take his next step toward the Triple Crown, a feat no horse has pulled off since Affirmed did it in 1978.
In the 37 years since, 13 have won the Derby and Preakness, only to fall short at the Belmont Stakes. Baffert trained three of those — Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet in 1998 and War Emblem in 2002.
If American Pharoah is to pull it off, he’ll have to do it from the rail gate, an unlucky draw for a horse who runs so effortlessly in open space. The draw proved doubly unlucky for Baffert, whose other star, Dortmund, will start from the No. 2 gate as the 7-2 second choice.
“I can’t believe I drew the 1-2 of all draws,” the bemused trainer said. “If [American Pharoah] is the best horse, we’ll find out. … That’s the first time I’ve ever drawn the rail here. I’ve been so lucky drawing well.”
Firing Line, meanwhile, drew the spot Callaghan and jockey Gary Stevens wanted, all the way on the outside at No. 8. It was an exciting turn of fate for a horse who’s finished second to American Pharoah and Dortmund a combined three times.
“I’ve got the upper hand where I’ve drawn,” said Stevens, who has ridden three Preakness winners. “I’ve got a lot more options, a lot more options than I’d have had if I had drawn down at the No. 1 hole. If you draw down at the No. 1 hole, your cards are dealt for you.”
The 32-year-old Callaghan couldn’t hide his delight at the set-up for his first Preakness. “It’s kind of a perfect scenario,” he said. “Now, we’ve just got to run the race.”
Firing Line is a 4-1 third choice, odds a confident Stevens said he’d recommend seizing.
Trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who unexpectedly pushed the field to eight when he entered Mr. Z on Wednesday, said the tough draw is no reason to dismiss American Pharoah.
“It’s a challenge for him, but he’s the best horse,” the six-time Preakness winner said. “I don’t care what gate you get. If you’re the best horse, you have to feel good. He’ll be all right.”
The last time the Preakness featured as few as eight horses was 2000, but small fields have produced some of the most memorable results in the race’s history.
When Sunday Silence and Easy Goer staged their epic stretch duel in 1989, they did so at the front of an eight-horse field. When Affirmed and Alydar completed the second chapter of their famed Triple Crown rivalry in 1978, they did it in a field of seven. In 1973, when Secretariat won the second leg of his Triple Crown in record time, he beat just five other horses.
For now, the white-haired Baffert isn’t ready to discuss American Pharoah’s Triple Crown chances. Instead, he’s enjoying the week he described as the most fun in the Triple Crown run. He talked of crabcakes and warm memories rather than the crushing pressure of Derby week.
“It’s fun here because you get here and everybody is really upbeat, all the horses are in the same barn, you can see everybody,” he said. “It’s more of a relaxed atmosphere. The Derby is tense. It’s intense and I was really just stressed out.”
Baffert felt so tense because he knew that at age 62, he might never enter another Triple Crown season with such a gifted pair. Dortmund, a rare blend of size and quickness, was undefeated until his third-place finish in Kentucky. And he ended up the B side to American Pharoah, a horse who drew comparisons to 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew before he even ran in the Derby.
Baffert describes his fourth Derby champion as a sort of magic Pegasus, floating above the turf during his morning gallops.
From his training base in Southern California, Baffert lived through the riots that swept Los Angeles in 1992 after the beating of Rodney King. He was asked if the Preakness could be a salve to the raw feelings that have gripped Baltimoreans in recent weeks.
Perhaps he’s just a romantic, but he didn’t dismiss the idea.
“For some reason, horses, animals, they just really win people over,” he said. “I think horses are good for the soul. I think it heals a lot of wounds.”