Horse Racing

Top contenders Firing Line, Dortmund present stiff challenge to Derby champ American Pharoah

This one is all about the supporting characters.

American Pharoah is a brilliant horse, admired by all the wisest observers in the racing game. But the Kentucky Derby champion is always a sensation during Preakness week. What sets this year apart is the presence of two challengers who gave the champ all he wanted at Churchill Downs.


Start with Firing Line, a horse who always gives his best, no matter the track surface or his position in the race.

Then add Dortmund, who shares trainer Bob Baffert with American Pharoah. His size makes him the most visually arresting horse in this year's Preakness field, and he'd never lost before he faded late in the Derby.


They went three wide down the stretch in Louisville, with Dortmund clinging to his lead on the rail, Firing Line holding tough in the middle and American Pharoah surging from the outside spurred by Victor Espinoza's steady whip. It was a battle Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens called "one of the funnest horse races I've ever ridden in."

And now the hope is American Pharoah's chief rivals will push him to a worthy second chapter at Pimlico Race Course on Saturday.

"Before I was an owner, I was a fan, and I would've loved to come to a race like this to see the top three from the Derby," said Firing Line's owner, Arnold Zetcher. "They were so competitive against each other. It should be great for the industry."

Could we get a showdown that evokes memories of Sunday Silence vs. Easy Goer in 1989 or Affirmed vs. Alydar in 1978? The hope, at least, feels stronger than it has in recent memory. Not since 2009 have the top three Derby finishers come back to run in the Preakness.

A strong camaraderie binds the rival camps, with Baffert as the link. He trains two of the horses and has also worked with Zetcher for years.

"So here we are," Zetcher said Thursday morning as he ambled up to the five-time Preakness winner.

"We have to find out what the competition is doing," Baffert replied.

"You can psych me out, but you can't psych my horse out," Zetcher said, grinning.


There's a feeling around Firing Line's camp that if he's ever to beat American Pharoah, this is the perfect scenario.

He's arguably the freshest horse in the field, having rested for six weeks leading into the Derby. Despite the ferocious battle at Churchill Downs, he maintained his appetite and weight in the aftermath. Perhaps most importantly, he drew an outside post. His rivals will start all the way inside, where they could become snared in traffic.

Asked if Firing Line can make up the gap, trainer Simon Callaghan didn't hesitate.

"I think we can," he said. "I just like the way our horse is training. Everything is going perfectly. I think one-sixteenth-of-a-mile shorter could definitely help us. We've got a good post, and maybe they've got a tougher post. So there's a few factors I think could help us turn the tables."

Stevens, who's ridden three Preakness winners, has raved about Firing Line since he first climbed aboard him in the Feb. 7 Robert B. Lewis Stakes. His faith in the colt only grew with the narrow loss at Churchill Downs, where Firing Line seemed unrattled by American Pharoah or the roar of 170,000 people.

Stevens compared the colt to great dogs he hunted with as a youth — always prepared to meet any request.


"Just nothing stirs him," he said. "I have great respect for not only American Pharoah but Dortmund, and anything could happen. I've ridden enough big races to know you never count your chickens before they're hatched. But this horse, he gives me a lot of confidence."

Zetcher has experienced heartache at Pimlico. In 2011, his Midnight Interlude came to the Preakness as a former Santa Anita Derby winner and finished 13th in a field of 14. Baffert was the trainer, in fact.

But Zetcher, former CEO of the Talbots women's clothing brand, sounded just like Stevens in explaining why this time feels different.

"This is a little different kind of a horse," he said of Firing Line. "He's so consistent and tries every time. With many horses, even if they're great ones, you might throw in a clunker sometimes. He doesn't seem to do that."

Callaghan saw intriguing qualities in Firing Line almost from the moment Zetcher bought the colt and shipped him to California.

"Pretty much the first time we breezed him, he showed us just enormous talent," the trainer recalled. "He's got a massive stride and he's a horse with a fantastic mind. Very early on, we felt we had something really special."


Stevens and Zetcher used similar language to describe Callaghan, who at age 32 is training in his first Triple Crown series. The Englishman has presented a calm, pleasant face throughout.

"He's got the same temperament as this horse does," said Stevens, the oldest jockey in the field at 52. "Nothing stirs him up. Simon doesn't worry about anything. He's a very relaxed character, and I think that kind of calms everybody in the camp down."

Dortmund, meanwhile, has become the overlooked character in this three-horse saga. It's easy to forget that before the Derby, many analysts favored him over American Pharoah because of his greater experience in tight races. Twice he'd beaten Firing Line by razor-thin margins.

He broke well in the Derby and led for much of the race, with Firing Line just behind and American Pharoah stalking a few lengths back. Because of Dortmund's No. 2 starting post, the Preakness could be a greater tactical challenge. Dortmund and American Pharoah are both expected to break fast to avoid being trapped on the rail. But if form holds and American Pharoah is quicker, Dortmund could be left in a difficult spot.

Baffert acknowledged the big chestnut didn't bring his "A game" to Churchill Downs. He nearly decided against shipping Dortmund to Kentucky because of a bout of colic the weekend before the Derby. So perhaps the illness sapped him.

"I mean, Dortmund came in undefeated, and he still ran a very gallant race to run third," Baffert said. "I really thought, when they turned down the backside, he would win it, the way he was just cruising along like he did in California. But he got a little tired. Since then, he's really trained well. I expect another big effort out of him."


Baffert said fans would be wrong to assume he's secretly pulling for American Pharoah because a Triple Crown run is on the line.

"I'm just here to win the Preakness," he said.

No matter who does the honors.