CRAWFORD | American Pharoah arrives at Churchill; can he be King - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | American Pharoah arrives at Churchill; can he be King of Kentucky?

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Kentucky Derby contender American Pharoah with Jim Barnes, an assistant trainer for Bob Baffert. (WDRB photo by Eric Crawford) Kentucky Derby contender American Pharoah with Jim Barnes, an assistant trainer for Bob Baffert. (WDRB photo by Eric Crawford)
Kentucky Derby contender American Pharoah walks in the barn with Jim Barnes, an assistant trainer for Bob Baffert. (WDRB photo by Eric Crawford) Kentucky Derby contender American Pharoah walks in the barn with Jim Barnes, an assistant trainer for Bob Baffert. (WDRB photo by Eric Crawford)
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — American Pharaoh arrived in the Churchill Downs stable area on Monday afternoon. The question that greets him: Can he be King of Kentucky?

Another might well be, is he King of his own stable?

The two-year-old champion faces some stiff competition in what might prove one of the most talented Kentucky Derby fields in years on the first Saturday in May — led by his unbeaten stablemate Dortmund. Both are trained by Bob Baffert, who is not  new to this situation — having brought Point Given and Congaree to the Derby in 2001.

But this pair may be better than those. More than one turf writer has invoked the names of Citation and Coaltown, the famed Ben Jones-trained duo that finished 1-2 in the 1948 Derby. Perhaps it's best to wait on those comparisons.

Still, whether American Pharoah or Dortmund is favored in the Derby remains very much up in the air, and may hinge on which handles the Churchill Downs surface better in training.

This much is sure — it's hard to make an argument against either one.

American Pharoah has looked to be at another level — and hasn't been asked for his best yet. He certainly looked comfortable as he stepped from the van in front of Baffert's Barn No. 33 at Churchill Downs on Monday afternoon, having flown in from Oaklawn Park where he demolished the field by eight lengths in winning last weekend's Arkansas Derby under a hand ride from jockey Victor Espinoza (rider of Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome a year ago).

American Pharaoh has won his last four starts against stakes competition by 22 1/4 lengths.

The bay son of Pioneerof the Nile, owned by Ahmed Zayat, had to come from off the pace for the first time in the Arkansas Derby, but it didn't matter.

Stepping out of the van with Baffert's assistant trainer, Jim Barnes, while cameras clicked away, American Pharoah stopped and posed, then did it again calmly before being bathed.

“The horse looked like he traveled very well - he's a good traveler," Barnes said. "The reason why we came here so early is that we were already halfway here. You don't want to go back to California and then come back to Churchill." 

Easy going and even-tempered, American Pharoah now has to answer the question of how he'll respond when he steps up to the highest-class runners of his age at Churchill Downs. And there will be questions over how he handles the track.

Some will say he hasn't been tested. Others, like Zayat Stables racing manager Justin Zayat, say it's not that he's been untested, it's just that he's been dominant. Zayat said that before the Arkansas Derby in a National Thoroughbred Racing Association teleconference.

“I mean that's a concern to anyone that your horse has never been battle-tested,” Zayat said. “But I think that's more of a credit to the horse himself. You know, he's a naturally brilliant, brilliant horse. If you watch his works, he just does everything so effortlessly. So I think that's honestly the reason that he's never been challenged. . . . I think he's got the talent to do it, and if I'm worried about seasoning with Bob Baffert then I'm in the wrong hands. You know, I'm in the hands of the guy who has won the Kentucky Derby three times. He knows how to do it, so there's no concerns about him being seasoned up for me. I just think this horse honestly is just a spectacular, spectacular horse, and that's the reason why he's honestly been unchallenged in all his races.”

He'll have only one significant work before the Derby.

“We're at Churchill and he'll just take it easy," Barnes said. "He doesn't need to do much. He'll breeze one time before the race." 

No timetable has been set for Dortmund's arrival. Owned by Kaleem Shah, he's a bigger colt, 17 hands, and comes into the Derby unbeaten in six starts, just the third unbeaten Derby starter since his sire, Big Brown, won the Derby in 2008. (Unbeaten starters since: Gemologist finished 16th in 2012 and Verrazano ran 13th in 2013).

Dortmund has the advantage of a win at Churchill Downs, in an allowance race last November. Two weeks ago with Martin Garcia aboard, Dortmund won the Santa Anita Derby 4 1/4 lengths ahead of One Lucky Dane — another Baffert-trained Derby hopeful.

As happens with elite trainers from time to time, Baffert's feed tub runneth over.

Now, you'll have to forgive folks in these parts if they're skeptical of anyone who has overwhelming talent and rolls in with an overwhelming favorite — or favorites. You're talking about a town that just watched a University of Kentucky basketball program fall short of the big one.

Baffert isn't unaware of that. He heard that John Calipari had his Wildcats watch Secretariat race before playing in the Final Four. He quipped on Los Angeles radio Sunday that he was going to have his jockeys watch Wisconsin beat Kentucky in the national semifinals.

“They're two different types of horses,” Baffert said a couple of weeks back. “Dortmund's just a big, long jumping animal, but Pharoah, he's a big long jumping horse. Martin works them both and it's really hard to separate them because they move differently. American Pharoah, he's brilliant. The way he moves he does it effortlessly. It's hard — but they're nice, very well-mannered horses. They don't get hot and they they're just really quiet, gentle horses. You can walk up to them — and Pharoah, he's just a really sweet horse; he's just really nice.  Dortmund, he can get a little worked up. He's a big horse. I can't believe how fortunate I have these two, you know, the big guns, in my barn like that.”

Big guns — and big expectations. 

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