CRAWFORD | American Pharoah reigns, lives up to his hype - and hope - in Kentucky Derby
From before his first race, elite trainers have been enamored with American Pharoah. On Saturday, he proved them right, winning the Kentucky Derby by one length over Firing Line before a record Derby crowd.
Saturday, May 2nd 2015, 9:25 pm EDT by
Saturday, May 2nd 2015, 11:22 pm EDT
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — On a farm in Florida, early last year, a group of elite trainers converged to watch the Zayat Stables 2-year-olds run. It was like the NFL combine — except with thoroughbreds. One after another, every trainer wanted the same colt.
He was the chosen one. By all of them. And on a postcard-perfect Saturday at Churchill Downs, 170,513 fans — the most ever to watch the Kentucky Derby — got to see why.
American Pharoah, named by a fan through an internet contest — misspelling and all — wrote his name into Kentucky Derby history by circling five-wide into the stretch and outrunning what racing enthusiasts believe may have been the strongest Derby field in nearly 20 years.
Ridden by jockey Victor Espinoza, who captured his third Derby victory and second in a row, and trained by Bob Baffert, who collected his fourth Derby win, American Pharoah become the third straight favorite to win the race and now puts his name forward as one who might end the sport's 37-year Triple Crown drought.
“All week, when people wanted to say he was a super horse, or wanted to mention him among the greats, I resisted,” said his owner, Ahmed Zayat, an Egyptian-born businessman who is the winner's owner and breeder. “Now he gets a chance to earn that praise. And today was a first step. He beat a great group of horses.”
Said Baffert, “We got the most important one out of the way.”
For all the talk of depth in this field, this was a three-horse race. And all three were outstanding. Dortmund, the unbeaten son of Derby-winner Big Brown, had the lead for the first four fractional calls, after a quarter-mile, half-mile, three-quarters and finally a mile. Firing Line, ridden by Hall of Famer Gary Stevens, was second to him at every call.
These two have been dueling all spring. Dortmund twice beat Firing Line by a head, and both times Stevens said he moved just a bit too soon. This time, he knew what he wanted to do.
He just couldn't beat the horse to his outside.
Running third to those two throughout the race, having slid down from his No. 18 post position, American Pharoah settled in.
He began to creep up on the other two heading for home. They hit the head of the stretch together. Dortmund darted to the inside. American Pharoah drifted wide. Firing Line ran down the middle, and poked a head in front, finally getting the best of Dortmund. He couldn't, however, outrun American Pharoah.
Gradually, feeling the whip in a race for the first time, American Pharoah began to surge ahead, and won by a length over Firing Line. Dortmund, a stablemate of American Pharoah, hung on for third.
“He had never been tested,” Espinoza said of American Pharoah, who had won his previous four races by 22 1/2 lengths. “I had to ride him hard.”
Stevens said his horse had no excuses.
“Going into that first turn, he was pulling hard,” Stevens said of Firing Line. “I looked over and saw that Martin (Garcia's) horse (Dortmund) was pulling just as hard as mine. I eased back off him a little bit and gave both horses some breathing room. He (Firing Line) was aggressive today. He was on it. Coming for home I thought I might get there, but it wasn't to be. My horse showed his braveness today. He just got beat.”
This week, observers as seasoned and successful as trainers D. Wayne Lukas and Bill Mott said they believe American Pharoah to be a special horse. Lukas said the son of 2009 Derby runner-up Pioneerof the Nile is fully capable of winning a Triple Crown.
Zayat said the team behind the horse is ready for the challenge.
“What gives me a lot of confidence is that particular horse,” Zayat said. “American Pharoah is very different from all the horses I had. Day one we felt that the had brilliance to him — his demeanor, his aura, his conformation, the way he moved. . . . Before, I came (to the Derby) with good horses. But I felt today I came with a star. But I was very cautious of saying that, because I wanted the horse to do the talking.”
Now, he has. American Pharoah ran the 1 1/4 mile in 2:03.02. He paid $7.80, 5.80 and 4.20 as the favorite. Frosted, winner of the Wood Memorial, ran fourth, followed by Danzig Moon, Todd Pletcher's Materiality — who lost a shoe early in the race — Keen Ice and Mubtaahij, who shipped in from Dubai.
Mike de Cock, the South African trainer of Mubtaahij, summed up the sentiments of many trainers when he said afterward, “There were some bloody good horses ahead of him.”
Espinoza, who as a young man learned his way through traffic by driving a bus on the dangerous streets of Mexico City, became the seventh jockey with three Derby victories and the sixth to record back-to-back Derby wins. The last to do it was Calvin Borel aboard Mine That Bird in 2009 and Super Saver in 2010.
“I feel like the luckiest Mexican on earth,” he said. “He has been a special horse since the first time I rode him. He has a lot of talent and is an unbelievable horse.”
Baffert said American Pharoah will remain stabled at Churchill Downs until shipping to Baltimore several days before the Preakness Stakes. He'll carry the hopes of a great many thoroughbred fans with him.
“I know a lot of people are hoping," said Baffert, who twice has finished inches away from The Triple Crown. "I really feel a lot of positive energy on this horse. People put their hat on something big like this, a horse, they like what he's done, there's a certain aura about him. he has caught everybody's attention."
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