CRAWFORD | American Pharoah overcomes elements, thunders home to - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | American Pharoah overcomes elements, thunders home to win Preakness

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American Pharoah had no trouble with the slop or competition in winning the Preakness Stakes. AP photo. American Pharoah had no trouble with the slop or competition in winning the Preakness Stakes. AP photo.
BALTIMORE (WDRB) — To these plagues, this Pharoah was immune.

As the horses walked onto the track at Pimlico for the 140th Preakness Stakes, a thunderstorm unleashed on the eight competitors, their trainers, the record crowd of 131,680 in the stands and the fans in the infield who were quickly evacuated for safety.

Rain. Wind. Lightning. Mud. Seven horses struggled against these elements. American Pharoah was unperturbed. He skipped over the slop, sliced through the rain, and thundered through the wind to a seven-length win to put himself within one victory of etching his name into horse racing history.

Jockey Victor Espinoza, now winner of four of the past five Triple Crown races, who in three weeks will become the first man to get a second straight chance to win a Triple Crown in the Belmont, had one thought as the rain started falling.

“The first thing I think about is so much water in my boots,” Espinoza said. “I was floating in them. You know, coming to these big races, sometimes we have a plan, but a lot of things will change. With the weather change and everything, I was just freezing. I just wanted to get it over with. But it definitely changed a lot.”

Espinoza hadn't planned to go straight for the lead. But after a bit of a slow break by American Pharoah from the inside post, he decided he didn't want his horse getting mud kicked into his face, and just decided to, as he said, “get it over with.”

It was over quickly. You can discuss the other eight competitors, but none really ran the race he came to run. Nobody took to the slop. It likely wouldn't have mattered, but it's hard to argue. Longshot Tale of Verve finished second, with Divining Rod third. Stablemate Dortmund was fourth and Mr. Z fifth. The time for the 1 3/16 race was 1:58.46.

“The adverse conditions likely affected seven of eight horses,” said D. Wayne Lukas, trainer of Mr. Z. “It obviously didn't bother the winner. . . . I've said it since March, he's special. This might be the year.”

Mark Casse, trainer of Danzig Moon, still hadn't gotten his fifth-place horse to stop coughing from the rough ride as they left the track.

“God decided he wanted to rain on it,” he said. “So what do you want to do?”

Firing Line, who hoped to stalk American Pharoah from the outside, stumbled coming out of the gate and never got his footing.

This was American Pharoah's day.

In the owner's box, trainer Bob Baffert watched the skies open and got concerned.

“I was getting a little leery,” Baffert said. “. . . I've never been through anything like that. that was crazy. I didn't know what was going to happen with the thunder. These horses, I could tell they didn't like it when they got pelted like that, and I was worried about the cotton balls in his ears. What if they're getting soaking wet? How is he going to react? Maybe I should've taken them out. I was thinking all of these different things. Then I saw a picture of the track with like a river running along the rail, and I thought, he's got to run through that? All of these things were going through my mind.”

Quickly, his colt put his mind at ease. American Pharoah led at every fractional call. After starting just a bit slowly, Espinoza hustled him to the lead and he was ahead by 2 1/2 lengths at the half-mile pole.

And soon, Baffert knew he was home free.

“Once he had him in the bit and he was turning down the backside , when I saw those ears go up, I thought, ‘Oh yeah.' It was like then that Victor slowed him down a little bit, and then they came to him at the three-eighths pole, and my wife Jill said, ‘They're coming to him.' And I said, ‘No, he's waiting, he's waiting.' Then he just let him out and threw it into overdrive.”

It was, truly, as if Espinoza had a gear-shift somewhere on the Pioneerof the Nile colt. It's rare when 3-year-olds can speed up, slow down, then speed up again in the course of a race. Some have just one run. Others two. American Pharaoh seems to have whatever is necessary.

And after winning four straight stakes races by 22 lengths leading up to the Kentucky Derby, which he won by just one length, American Pharoah returned to his dominant ways, running away from what had been considered a quality field.

It also was a victory for owner Ahmed Zayat, who broke through with the Derby victory after several second-place finishes. The Egyptian businessman got into the sport in a big way in 2005 after selling his beverage distributorship in Egypt. He let fans name the horse through a contest, and when the winner misspelled the word “Pharaoh,” he decided to leave it as-is when the name was registered.

He described the feeling Saturday as, “Absolute elation. Not just happy for myself and the family and Bob Baffert, Victor, the groom and every single person, I was also happy for the sport. A sport without a star is not a sport.”

Now, it may have a star. American Pharoah will be a big favorite in the June 6 Belmont, but he'll face a number of horses who have been waiting for him. Dallas Stewart's second-place Tale of Verve could be the only Preakness finisher who heads on to New York.

Baffert and the connections weren't worried about that on Saturday.

“Great horses do great things,” Baffert said. “. . . The thing is about him, he is the sweetest horse of this caliber that I've ever been around. I mean, you feed him carrots, and he's like a pet. Usually they're like athletes. They want to get it on. But he's just the sweetest horse. He's spoiled to death. It was just a magical moment watching him come down that stretch.”

Baffert knows that New York will be difficult. He's been here three times before, and three times felt the disappointment of coming short on a Triple Crown chase at the Belmont, twice by excruciatingly close margins.

“It's going to be tough,” Baffert said. “I've always said, (the Preakness) is the easiest of the three legs. This next race is going to be — I know everybody right now is sharpening their knives getting ready.”

New York could swallow him up. But after 37 years without a Triple Crown, horse racing fans are hoping that American Pharoah is ready to rule.

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