BALTIMORE - Hall of Fame jockeys Gary Stevens and Jerry Bailey sat together Thursday in Pimlico's grandstand as the Kentucky Derby winner galloped past. As American Pharoah glided effortlessly, Stevens winced.
The powerful bay colt looked that sharp, which darkened Stevens' mood on a sunny morning. His colt Firing Line gave it all he had and came up a length short at Churchill Downs. Stevens and trainer Simon Callaghan are hopeful they can "make up the length" in Saturday's 140th Preakness Stakes, but they know they're up against it.
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American Pharoah is the 4-5 morning-line favorite, and his price could be even lower by 6:18 p.m. post time. Bailey and fellow NBC analyst Randy Moss think he'll be going for a Triple Crown on June 6 in the 1-mile Belmont Stakes.
"The result should be the same as in the Derby, but the trips in the Preakness figure to be different because of the post positions," Bailey said. "Starting from the rail, American Pharoah probably goes to the early lead this time."
He stalked in third in the Derby but he has gone wire to wire three times, so he wouldn't be learning a new trick. To Moss, "Breaking from the rail will almost be like a head start for him."
Trainer Bob Baffert has won five Preaknesses: Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998), Point Given (2001), War Emblem (2002) and Lookin At Lucky (2010). The highest payoff was Silver Charm's $8.20. "I won them all with the best horse," he said.
Unlike the Derby, where rough trips in a 20-horse field often bring down favorites, the best horse generally wins the Preakness. The Derby winner has won nine of the past 18, and American Pharoah's high cruising speed and versatility make him intimidating.
"He was born with a lot of talent," Baffert said. "He floats over the ground."
Pharoah's Derby win was no surprise, but he was supposed to dominate under Victor Espinoza, not be forced to battle down the stretch. Firing Line made him work very hard.
"He had never had a stiff race," Baffert said. "It looks like he handled it pretty well. Now that he's had one, he should really move forward."
Or maybe go the other way. "That's the first time he's really been tested,'' Stevens said. "So it will be interesting to see how he came out of it."
To Stevens' dismay, Pharoah looked terrific training here, and maybe it will be Firing Line who regresses. If both go backward, maybe Baffert's other colt, Dortmund, can rebound from his only defeat.
"I think it's going to be very competitive," Baffert said. "Those big three are going to be very tough again. What happens going into the first turn will determine everything."
Notes & quotes: There's a 50-percent chance of scattered thundershowers from 3-7 p.m. Only American Pharoah has won over a wet track; five rivals haven't run on one . . . Commissioner ($4.60) won the Grade III Pimlico Special for trainer Todd Pletcher and jockey Javier Castellano . . . Keen Pauline ($32.80), under Castellano and trained by Dale Romans, took the Grade II Black-Eyed Susan for 3-year-old fillies.Stopchargingmaria ($3.20) won the Grade III Allaire Dupont Distaff for Pletcher and John Velazquez.