Bob Baffert worried about his horse in the days after the Kentucky Derby.
American Pharoah had won, yes, but he hadn't seemed himself on race day. The madhouse scene at Churchill Downs had worn him out.
So it was left to a record Preakness crowd to see the true majesty of Baffert's champion as he rumbled through a monsoon to win by seven lengths. American Pharoah left no doubts about his status as the pre-eminent 3-year-old of a gifted crop. Now the question is whether he can handle the war of attrition that will culminate with a Triple Crown shot on June 6 in the Belmont Stakes in Elmont, N.Y.
"That's the American Pharoah we wanted to see the last time that we didn't get to see," Baffert said on Sunday morning at Pimlico Race Course. "He gets into that stride and just does it effortlessly. He doesn't give the other horses a chance at all to come to him."
His horse was tired but seemed healthy and hungry after Saturday's run through the muck.
Baffert knows as well as anyone how hard it is to win a Triple Crown. The Hall of Fame trainer has taken three horses — Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet in 1998 and War Emblem in 2002 — to the Belmont Stakes with shots to become the first to win it all since Affirmed in 1978.
Silver Charm and Real Quiet suffered two of the most excruciating near misses among the list of 13 horses who've tried and failed over the past 37 years.
If recent history is any guide, the last chapter of American Pharoah's quest will be the hardest. He'll have to deal with the 11/2-mile distance at Belmont and the wear from running a third time in five weeks, neither a familiar challenge for a modern thoroughbred.
Most difficult of all, he'll face a field of fresh horses, many of whom have been resting since the Derby, waiting to take him down.
Those contenders could include trainer Todd Pletcher's Materiality and Carpe Diem and Kiaran McLaughlin's Frosted, who won the Wood Memorial in New York and finished fourth in the Derby. Other likely challengers are Preakness runner-up Tale of Verve and Pletcher's Madefromlucky, who will try to follow the same path as Tonalist in 2014 — jumping from a victory in the Peter Pan Stakes to a win in the Belmont.
It was Tonalist's defeat of California Chrome that inspired new questions about the fairness of the Triple Crown series, given the lighter schedules favored by most modern trainers. California Chrome's co-owner, Steve Coburn, lashed out against Tonalist's connections, calling their decision to skip the first two legs of the Triple Crown "a coward's way out."
The reality is, few trainers want to run their horses so many times in a condensed period.
This has become the great drama of the Triple Crown series, especially since the demise of a bonus system that gave owners and trainers a financial incentive to run all three races. Pletcher, for example, has made no bones about his aversion to running in the Preakness. He cares less about the sanctity of the Triple Crown than about winning the $1.5 million Belmont Stakes for his clients.
"Belmont's our home track and we've done pretty well in the Belmont Stakes," he said recently. "We've done well by either not running in the Derby … or taking the five weeks. It seems to work well for us."
Baffert doesn't blame his colleagues for swooping in with fresh horses.
"I understand because they figure if they can't win this, why put them through it," he said of trainers skipping the Preakness. "It just shows the respect they have for American Pharoah. They'll try to catch him when he's maybe a little bit more vulnerable. It's something you can't control."
Baffert isn't one to moan about the challenge. "You have to earn it, just like he had to earn it in that weather," he said. "If he's a great horse, he's got to do it. All the greats who've won the Triple Crown had to do the same thing."
American Pharoah's jockey, Victor Espinoza, said he was curious which challengers will line up for Belmont. He's ridden both War Emblem and California Chrome with Triple Crowns on the line, only to lose to fresher horses.
"I wish he could run some horses here in the Preakness," he said of Pletcher. "But I know he skips the Preakness to get other new ones ready for the Belmont."
The talk coming into the Preakness was of a potentially memorable rivalry between the Derby champ and the horses who pushed him so hard at Churchill Downs — Firing Line and Dortmund. But American Pharoah put that story to rest, thumping both in the mud at Pimlico.
Neither Firing Line nor Dortmund is likely to challenge him at Belmont Park. They'll rest as he pursues a Triple Crown.
Baffert, meanwhile, will ship American Pharoah from Baltimore back to Churchill Downs on Monday. He'll give the Preakness champ a light week before training for the Belmont begins in earnest. American Pharoah likely will not go to New York until the Wednesday before the Belmont Stakes.
Baffert said there's a slight chance he could opt against running if the colt doesn't rebound well from the Preakness. But he sounded confident American Pharoah was in good shape Sunday morning.
"He's the horse," Baffert said. "He's the best horse so far. He just has to dig out one more time. I've never had a horse win the Preakness like that."
The trainer, meanwhile, planned to enjoy his sixth Preakness victory with a crab cake lunch at Michael's Cafe and a trip to the Fasig-Tipton sale at Timonium, where he'd scout 2-year-olds for possible purchase. He was scheduled to fly back to Los Angeles Sunday evening.
"Baltimore is just so much fun," he said. "I always say it's my favorite leg. It's so easy to get around, and everybody's so nice."
Over the next three weeks, his mind will inevitably run through all the potential pitfalls at Belmont Park — the fresh challengers, the crush of media, the unpredictable track surface.
He reached back in Triple Crown history for one wish — a fast surface similar to the one on which Secretariat won by 31 lengths in 1973. Does American Pharoah have that kind of show in him?
"I want the same track Secretariat had," Baffert said.