Asked to identify the link between his previous five Preakness winners, Bob Baffert did not hesitate.
"We actually had the best horse every time I won here," the Hall of Fame trainer said. "It's what makes trainers look great, the best horses."
Baffert seemingly has the best horse again in American Pharoah, who beat a loaded Kentucky Derby field as the pre-race favorite. But 20 years on the Triple Crown stage have also taught Baffert another fundamental truth — the best horse doesn't always win.
Just watch him cringe as he recalls how 2010 Derby favorite Lookin at Lucky got trapped along the rail after starting from the No. 1 post. It's the same spot from which American Pharoah will break in Saturday's 140th Preakness.
A difficult starting spot is but one of the challenges American Pharoah will have to overcome at Pimlico Race Course if he's to capture the second leg of the Triple Crown. He'll have to retain his composure before the race, something he struggled to do on his walk from the barn at Churchill Downs. And he'll have to beat two terrific horses in his stablemate, Dortmund, and unflappable Derby runner-up Firing Line.
American Pharoah will nonetheless enter as a 4-5 morning-line favorite and the choice of many wise observers, including Baffert's longtime friend and rival, D. Wayne Lukas.
"I almost think he has to have some bad luck to lose," said the six-time Preakness winner, who will saddle Mr. Z in Saturday's race. "I think he's the best horse. You stand here and you're in the race and selfishly you want to do it — I'll try everything in the world to try and beat him — but after you've been in 35 of these you get a little realistic, too."
Expectations for American Pharoah were so high going into the Derby that Baffert found himself in the odd spot of defending the colt's victorious run. Some analysts seemed to feel he should have swept by Firing Line and Dortmund, just as he'd run away from the competition in prep races.
It's true American Pharoah had to fight like he never had to pass Firing Line and hold him off by less than a length. Jockey Victor Espinoza hit him more than 30 times with a right-handed whip, trying to unlock his majestic speed.
"When he pushed the button, he was stuck a little bit, had me a little bit concerned there coming into the quarter pole," Baffert recalled. "I thought maybe he wasn't riding, was struggling a little bit, really wasn't responding. He didn't look like a tired horse. I don't know if it was the crowd noise or what. I think a lot of it was that Firing Line was really running hard."
Baffert expects American Pharoah to run better in Baltimore, and he's not alone. Lukas is convinced the Derby champ has yet to show his best.
"He was the best horse when he didn't bring his 'A' game," he said. "That's what you've got to consider. He won the Kentucky Derby and I don't think he brought his A game that day."
Lukas said his horse would have to defy logic to beat American Pharoah. But then American Pharoah wouldn't be the first Derby winner to suffer terrible luck at Pimlico. Lukas recalled Barbaro's heart-rending injury in 2006 and Thunder Gulch's 1995 loss to stablemate Timber Country.
"Realistically, if you're a purist, objective handicapper, you can't bet against that horse," he said. "You're not supposed to. You shouldn't. But you can't mail it in either."
The inside post position will limit Espinoza's options on Saturday. He'll likely try to get out fast to avoid getting trapped in traffic. Gary Stevens, Firing Line's Hall of Fame jockey, said he could see Espinoza going straight to the lead and trying to control the race from the front.
Stevens, a three-time Preakness winner, likes his chances attacking from the outside. But as much as he and trainer Simon Callaghan love their position, they spoke with great respect for American Pharoah.
"He ran us down fair and square in the Derby," Callaghan said. "He's definitely the horse everyone feels they have to beat."
As American Pharoah took his morning bath Friday beside the towering Dortmund, it was apparent just how much muscle is packed beneath the Derby champ's shiny brown coat. He looked like a body builder compared to his lankier stablemate.
The muscle allows him to generate tremendous propulsion in his stride, which Baffert always equates to floating. It was American Pharoah's effortless speed that captivated longtime racing observers as they handicapped this year's unusually gifted crop of 3-year-olds.
Retired jockey Rosie Napravnik said she sensed a future champion the first time she saw him as a 2-year-old. "I was blown away," she said. "And I'm not easily blown away."
NBC analyst Randy Moss recalled visiting longtime clocker and bloodstock agent Gary Young at Santa Anita Park in the early spring. Moss was skeptical about American Pharoah and wanted a first-hand opinion from someone he trusted.
"I think he's the next Seattle Slew," Young told him.
Such talk had Baffert tense going into the Derby, largely because he didn't want to squander a great talent. But with that victory in hand, he has seemed mellow since arriving in Baltimore on Wednesday.
Baffert joked he was disappointed he hadn't generated as much buzz as Art Sherman did with California Chrome last year. "But there's been really nothing going on," he said.
Justin Zayat, the son of American Pharoah's owner Ahmed Zayat, arrived Friday morning, fresh off taking his finals at New York University. He laughed as he described the grief he's taken from friends for vomiting, rather publicly, during the excitement at the end of the Derby.
He and his father, an Egyptian-born former beer magnate, had lived through three runner-up finishes at Churchill Downs. So their mania was understandable.
Zayat's stomach dropped in a different way as he broke from studying to watch the post-position draw from Pimlico.
"I see all the outside post positions taken and I'm thinking, 'Oh no,' " he said. "But it happens. He's a horse who's brilliantly fast. He has the talent to do it. We just have to pray for a clean break and a clean trip."
Have he and his father allowed themselves to think ahead three weeks to a possible shot at the first Triple Crown in 37 years?
"We do this, and then we could start that dream," Zayat said. "But of course, I can't let myself not dream."