American Pharoah wins rainy Preakness, keeping Triple Crown bid alive

Bob Baffert didn't say much as he kept his gaze fixed on the television screen, trying to gain a glimpse of American Pharoah as the Kentucky Derby champion moved through a blinding rain storm toward the starting gate for the 140th Preakness.

Thunder rumbled in the background, and the downpour became so fierce that spectators used plastic folding chairs to cover their heads. "He's going to have to run through a river," Baffert's wife, Jill, said nervously.


"It's too late," American Pharoah's Hall of Fame trainer said as the field of eight prepared to break. "How can we change it?"

As it turned out, they wouldn't want to change a thing. In a display of true majesty under harrowing conditions, American Pharoah ran away with the second leg of the Triple Crown Saturday, winning by seven lengths in the muck at Pimlico Race Course.

The rivals who'd pushed him so hard in the Derby were nowhere to be seen as the muscular bay colt set up his shot for immortality as the first Triple Crown winner since 1978. His date with history will come June 6 at Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y.

"What a horse!" Baffert said as he watched American Pharoah cross the finish line in front of a record crowd of 131,680. "That's a great horse."

The race ranked among the most unusual Preaknesses in recent memory, with the sky opening less than 30 minutes before post time and the rain creating small rivers along the rail. It was the first Preakness run under sloppy track conditions since Deputed Testamony's win in 1983. Maryland Jockey Club vice president and Pimlico general manager Sal Sinatra said he opted against a delay because the horses were saddled and "nothing indicated that the conditions would deteriorate any further."

American Pharoah's jubilant owner, Ahmed Zayat, said the conditions set up a revealing performance by his champion. "A sign of a good horse is that whatever you throw in his face, he finds a way to win," said the Egyptian-born Zayat, who made his fortune as a beer distributor. "He put on a show today. No one was coming close to him."

It's difficult to win the Kentucky Derby and leave your supporters mildly disappointed. But so great is American Pharoah's talent that some people seemed crestfallen when he didn't fly away with the first leg of the Triple Crown.

The Preakness set up as a tantalizing rematch between American Pharoah, his hulking stablemate, Dortmund, and imperturbable Derby runner-up, Firing Line. The champ ran them down two weeks ago at Churchill Downs and this time, he beat his rivals from the unfavorable No. 1 post at Pimlico.

Firing Line stumbled early in the mud and never recovered to challenge American Pharoah. "It was obviously a very good performance," his trainer, Simon Callaghan, said of the champion. "I can't take anything away from the winner. He handled the conditions and was the best horse on the day. It was just unfortunate for us to not get a chance."

Firing Line ended up seventh and Dortmund fourth.

Others spoke with awe of American Pharoah's performance. "Well, the way he did it today, he had to be the real deal," said Jose Corrales, owner and trainer of eighth-place finisher Bodhisattva.

The total handle from the day's 14 races was $85,161,000, up from $83,768,000 last year. At 4-5 odds, American Pharoah paid $3.80 on a $2 bet to win, $3.40 to place and $2.80 to show. Dallas Stewart's long shot Tale Of Verve finished second ($19.00, $8.80). Divining Rod finished third ($5.20).

The Preakness victory, worth $900,000, was Baffert's sixth and jockey Victor Espinoza's third (he also won last year aboard California Chrome).

Espinoza joked that when the rain began, he was most concerned about the amount of water in his boots. But the truth is this horse keeps amazing his rider, who said before the Derby American Pharoah had yet to find his limits.


"Each race, I learn something new and surprising in the way he runs," the soft-spoken Espinoza said. "Today was an amazing race for him."

Espinoza said last year he'd probably never get another chance to take a horse to Belmont with a shot at the Triple Crown. But now he'll do it for the second year in a row and the third time in his career.

He quickly took American Pharoah off the rail and into the lead Saturday, throttled back mid-race and then asked his horse to fire away from the field down the stretch. American Pharoah seemed calmer than he'd been in the Derby and followed his rider's demands perfectly.

Now, racing lovers will turn their attention to Belmont Park in hopes of watching American Pharoah become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed. Advocates for the economically-troubled sport have long yearned for a new superstar to join Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed in the firmament.

American Pharoah certainly looks the part, with his muscular build and effortless speed that had analysts predicting greatness long before he won the Derby.

Baffert has come within one win of a Triple Crown three times before, with Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet in 1998 and War Emblem in 2002. He's said all along that the Preakness is the easiest leg to win. If you have a horse fit for the Derby, chances are he'll remain fit two weeks later.

But the Belmont is a more complicated hurdle. Start with the fact these horses are neither used to running 11/2 miles nor to racing three times in five weeks. Then consider the cavalcade of refreshed contenders American Pharoah will likely face, including Todd Pletcher's duo of Carpe Diem and Materiality and Kiaran McLaughlin's Frosted, who finished fourth in the Derby.

"I know everybody right now is sharpening their knives, getting ready," Baffert said.

"Bring it on!" Zayat interjected.

The owner's glasses were still fogged up and dripping with rain, but unlike Baffert, he did not hesitate to look ahead. "I was honestly happy for the sport," he said. "The sport without a star is not a sport. … Now, God willing, he comes out of this race well, and we could be talking about history."

Last year, Tonalist, a horse who'd run in neither the Derby nor Preakness, picked off California Chrome in New York. That defeat inspired an epic fit from California Chrome's co-owner, Steve Coburn, who said the Triple Crown is essentially rigged because not everyone plays by the same scheduling rules.

Baffert said he could identify with the essence of Coburn's complaint if not the delivery. And now his horse is the one facing a challenge none have surmounted in 37 years. Thirteen horses in that span have gone to Belmont with a chance to follow in Affirmed's hoof prints. Some, including Silver Charm and Real Quiet, have come agonizingly close.

"I really don't think about the third leg yet," Baffert said.

He had yet to plan out the next three weeks, though American Pharoah will remain at Pimlico at least until Monday. Baffert will have that long to reflect on one of the stranger, more triumphant chapters in his decorated career.


Zayat has gifted the trainer with a wonderful talent and a sweetheart to boot, a champion Baffert described as so affable you can feed him carrots "like a pet."

Yet American Pharoah has demonstrated the steel at his core, first when he was challenged in the Derby and again Saturday as the rain fell around him.

"I've never been through anything like that," Baffert said. "That was crazy."