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Five storylines heading into the Preakness

Five storylines heading into the Preakness
Victor Espinoza rides American Pharoah to victory in the 141st running of the Kentucky Derby horse race at Churchill Downs Saturday, May 2, 2015, in Louisville, Ky. (Jeff Roberson / AP)

Let's see it again.

Unlike the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight later the same night, the 2015 Kentucky Derby lived up to exorbitant hype, with a superb field producing a thrilling three-horse battle in front of a record crowd of 170,513.

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Rematches at the Preakness have become all too scarce with many trainers skipping the second leg of the Triple Crown in favor of bringing fresh horses to the Belmont Stakes. But not this year.

It appears brilliant Derby champion American Pharoah will again have to outpace runner-up Firing Line and third-place Dortmund if he's to set up a chance at the first Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978.

Three-wide they went at Churchill Downs, with the massive Dortmund trying to hold a lead on the rail, American Pharoah charging on the outside and Firing Line holding tough in the middle. American Pharoah went off as a 5-2 favorite and proved to be the class of the bunch, but he did it by less than a length in the toughest race of his life.

As the scene shifts to Pimlico Race Course next Saturday, it remains to be seen if these three California stars can shine so brightly again. If they do, this could go down as one of the most memorable Triple Crown seasons in recent memory.

Here are five key storylines heading into the 140th Preakness:

Can American Pharoah hit another level?

The Derby champion was favored at Churchill Downs because of the effortless speed he'd demonstrated in workouts and in winning prep races virtually unchallenged. But his Derby victory on May 2 was as much a tribute to his toughness as his speed.

Jockey Victor Espinoza put American Pharoah in perfect stalking position from his outside post, but the bay colt did not simply sweep past his top competitors down the stretch. Espinoza hit him dozens of times with a right-hand whip, something he'd never had to do in previous races. And still the favorite could not shake Firing Line.

Trainer Bob Baffert offered an interesting theory the next day. American Pharoah had become extremely tense on the pre-race walk from his barn to the paddock, perhaps unnerved by the crush of people. Maybe, Baffert said, he started the race without his usual energy.

If that's the case and if the experience taught American Pharoah how to handle the big stage, might we see a fresher performance at Pimlico? Analysts have long regarded him as the most-talented horse in this exceptional 3-year-old crop, and he's now demonstrated he can handle a fight.

Perhaps we'll see American Pharoah assert himself as the unquestioned star of this group.

Of the top two challengers, which is a bigger threat?

The chief story going into the Derby was the showdown between American Pharoah and Dortmund, both trained by Baffert. Dortmund went off as a 3-1 second choice, and many analysts picked him to win, figuring he came in more tested than his stablemate.

The towering chestnut went to the lead early and remained there for most of the race, fading only at the very end.

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Baffert said he believed Dortmund had a chance to win as the field rolled down the backstretch, but he came away describing the third-place finisher as more one-dimensional than American Pharoah.

So is there any reason to believe Dortmund can do better in Baltimore? Well, maybe. At 1 3/16 miles, the Preakness is a shorter race. And Baffert also revealed he'd nearly decided not to ship Dortmund to the Derby because of a bout of colic the weekend before.

If Dortmund comes into the Preakness healthier, he might be harder to pass.

Firing Line is probably the safer choice because we know he can hang with either of Baffert's horses all the way to the wire. He's done it three times now, earning the admiration of veteran jockey Gary Stevens in the process.

Stevens and 32-year-old trainer Simon Callaghan came out of the Derby believing Firing Line can beat American Pharoah and might fare better in a shorter race. If he finishes second again, he'll draw comparisons to the ultimate Triple Crown runner-up, Alydar.

Can any of Todd Pletcher's challengers threaten the big three?

Pletcher, a six-time Eclipse Award winner as the sport's top trainer, had not revealed which horses he'd enter in the Preakness as of Thursday. But he hasn't ruled out bringing back Derby starters Carpe Diem or Materiality.

Carpe Diem went off as a 7-1 third choice at Churchill Downs and was regarded as a talent on par with Baffert's duo. He actually broke well from a difficult inside post but could never make a serious move on the leaders. Pletcher said he didn't adapt well to the surface at Churchill Downs.

Materiality, meanwhile, got off to a terrible start in the Derby but charged from 17th to sixth in the late stages, demonstrating some of the talent he'd shown in an eye-opening Florida Derby win.

Either horse would make an intriguing bounceback candidate at Pimlico.

Competitive Edge, also trained by Pletcher, might be the most compelling potential entry who did not run in the Derby. He looked outstanding in winning the Pat Day Mile on the Derby undercard, and Pletcher said his full potential remains unknown because he hasn't truly been tested.

Will security concerns shadow Baltimore's biggest event?

This was a subject of much conversation before the Derby, with horsemen monitoring the civil unrest in Baltimore in the wake of Freddie Gray's death.

The connections of the top horses said they wouldn't feel any reservations about traveling to Pimlico, and the situation in Baltimore has only calmed since then.

Maryland Jockey Club officials have said they don't expect any unusual security measures because of the recent trouble.

Nonetheless, expect plenty of talk about the Gray case as the national media comes back to town.

Does American Pharoah have a realistic shot at the Triple Crown?

It's the question that looms over every Preakness, as racing lovers thirst for a new star on the level of Secretariat, Seattle Slew or Affirmed.

American Pharoah brings many desirable traits — a striking, muscular frame, a pleasant disposition and speed that evokes comparisons to the all-time greats. Analysts have talked of him as a potential superhorse for months.

This is a deep, talented group of 3-year-olds, however, and the Derby showed us American Pharoah will have to fight for every bit of a Triple Crown if he's to make a run.

Put it this way: If he pulls it off, his legacy as a superstar will be well-earned.

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