By Tom LaMarra BloodHorse.com
Zayat Stable's American Pharoah gave himself a shot at the Triple Crown after a commanding victory in the $1.5 million Xpressbet.com Preakness Stakes (gr. I) May 16 at Pimlico Race Course.
Ridden by Victor Espinoza for trainer Bob Baffert, American Pharoah set fast fractions after taking control from post 1 and pulled away from his foes in the lane. The tempo slowed throughout because of the early pace, however, and the son of Pioneerof the Nile finished the 1 3/16 miles in 1:58.45 on a track made sloppy by a downpour that began with 10 minutes to post.
Longshot Tale of Verve rallied for second, seven lengths behind the winner, followed by Divining Rod in third and Dortmund in fourth.
American Pharoah was bred by his owner in Kentucky.
"He's just an incredible horse," Baffert said immediately after the race. "What he does is amazing. Great horses do great things, and I think he showed that today."
As for the June 6 Belmont Stakes (gr. I), final leg of the Triple Crown, Baffert said he needed time to let the Preakness win, followed by American Pharoah's victory in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), sink in.
"I don't even want to think about the (Triple Crown) right now," Baffert said. "I want to enjoy this. It's tough (at Belmont). I've been there and I don't want to think about it for another couple of weeks.
"We'll just see how the horse comes back (after the Preakness). I want to enjoy this, and I want to thank everyone for being so nice to us. It has been a great ride so far."
Owner Ahmed Zayat was more willing to discuss the Triple Crown possibility.
"We could be talking about history," Zayat said. "How could I be happier than that?"
The forecast of late afternoon thunderstorms proved accurate as a line of storms headed toward Maryland earlier in the afternoon. The wind picked up as the horses were being saddled on the turf course and in the indoor paddock, and as they headed to the track, heavy rain began to fall.
The dirt surface, which had been sealed about an hour prior to the race, was quickly downgraded to sloppy. And it played to the liking of American Pharoah, who won the Rebel Stakes (gr. II) on a sloppy track at Oaklawn Park in March.
Espinoza clearly wanted the lead as stablemate Dortmund and Mr. Z also fired from the gate from posts 2 and 3, respectively. By the time the opening quarter-mile was accomplished in :22.90, American Pharoah was on a loose lead, tracked by Mr. Z and Dortmund.
"He broke a tiny bit slow, so I had to push him to go to the front," Espinoza said. "Once he got to the lead he was very comfortable. I wasn't going to try to get the lead, but after the rain I changed my mind."
The leader clicked off a half-mile in :46.49 and six furlongs in 1:11.42 with Mr. Z and Dortmund several lengths behind. Divining Rod rode the rail and slipped through to appear a threat at the leader after the one mile went in a much slower 1:37.74.
American Pharoah, however, still had something left. Divining Rod flattened out not long after Mr. Z and Dortmund dropped out of contention. That left late-running Tale of Verve as the only horse gaining ground, but American Pharoah was long gone.
The final time of 1:58.45 was the slowest for the Preakness since 1956, when Fabius was the winner over Needles and No Regrets on a fast track.
American Pharoah returned $3.80, $3.40, and $2.80 across the board. Tale of Verve paid $19 and $8.80, while Divining Rod was worth $5.20 to show.