LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The anticipated fast pace never materialized in Saturday's Kentucky Derby, as often happens in distance races. The highly touted favorite got the job done, even though his rider had to start pushing on him hard seven-sixteenths of a mile from the finish line and whipped him 32 times down the stretch.
So, how good is American Pharoah? Clearly an A-list 3-year-old and the best of his generation for the time being, but he had to work awfully hard to beat Firing Line by a length. It was the smallest margin for a Derby winner since 50-1 shot Giacomo in 2005.
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He didn't have a difficult trip, either. On a scale of 1-10, with 10 the easiest, it was an 8 or an 8 1/2. American Pharoah was three-wide most of the way until jockey Victor Espinoza shifted into the five path turning for home. But after tracking a moderate speed duel between stablemate Dortmund and Firing Line, American Pharoah lacked the electric burst of acceleration that blows open a race in two or three strides.
So anointing him as the second coming of Seattle Slew was a bit premature. Let's shut down the hype machine until we see what happens May 16 at the Preakness.
Although the workmanlike win was far less emphatic than those of recent Derby heroes California Chrome, Animal Kingdom and Big Brown, it showed class and grit. The powerful bay did two things he never had been asked to do: run hard and win a fight.
"He finally had a stiff race," trainer Bob Baffert said. "I loved his position on the backstretch, but he was struggling from the half-mile pole. When they turned for home, it was 'Please, God, just give me a little push.' "
American Pharoah was perky and personable Sunday as he met the media and fans on a glorious spring morning outside Barn 33 at Churchill Downs. Baffert fed him small carrots and let admirers pet the Pharoah's forehead as smartphones clicked.
"There's the crowd, better get used to them now," Baffert told his star. "I think he knows he's a celebrity."
He said he didn't see why American Pharoah and Dortmund wouldn't run in the 13/16-mile Preakness, but he won't commit until "they tip me off they're ready for a top effort."
Besides Baffert's colts and Firing Line, no other Derby runner is considered definite for the Preakness.
Trainer Mark Casse said he'd think about running Danzig Moon. International Star, scratched on Derby morning with a minor foot problem, is a possibility, owner Ken Ramsey said. New shooters Divining Rod and Bodhisattva might run, according to a Pimlico spokesman. Derby also-rans Frosted, Keen Ice and Frammento will await the Belmont Stakes on June 6.
"The Preakness is the easiest [Triple Crown] race to win," said Baffert, who has done that five times. "The Derby is the hardest. If you run well in the Derby, that means your horse is in top shape. We'll be ready for another tough race."