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American Pharoah heads to Baltimore as heavy favorite in Saturday's Preakness

American Pharoah and jockey Victor Espinoza (4) win

American Pharoah and jockey Victor Espinoza (4) win the $750,000 Rebel Stakes horse race at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., Saturday, March 14, 2015. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston) Credit: AP

American Pharoah wasn't gliding to his usual runaway victory, and Ahmed Zayat got the fear. Amid the screaming mob of 170,513, the owner felt overwhelmed. The nightmare of a fourth second-place finish in the Kentucky Derby was becoming unbearably real.

"I'm looking at the stretch run and start getting really, really nervous," Zayat said. "I'm looking at my wife, Joanne, and she starts crying." Their 23-year-old son and racing manager, Justin, was freaking out, too, guts churning with yearning and dread.

"I didn't know what I was going through," Justin Zayat said. "Is this a dream right now? I just want to be woken up."

It's said that worry is interest paid on trouble before it is due, and in about half a minute, Zayat's colt vaporized all that negative energy. It was no knockout, but American Pha- roah earned the decision in his first real fight, and he'll head to Baltimore as the heavy favorite for Saturday's 140th Preakness Stakes.

The Derby's 26.57-second final quarter-mile was on the slow side, and to the Zayats it seemed endless. After the first horse they ever bred took the lead inside the eighth pole and edged away from Firing Line by a length, a tsunami of feelings wiped them out.

"In seconds it went from somebody who is crying out of fear that somebody is going to take it again from us to realizing you have actually done it," Ahmed Zayat said. "Tears of joy. Euphoria.

"No more seconds!"

Justin had to wait a few minutes to savor the glorious vibes. After American Pharoah left it all out there, he did, too. "I look at my son," Zayat said, "and his girlfriend is holding him, and he's throwing up."

As Churchill Downs executive John Asher said: "Another magic moment in Kentucky Derby history."

The world's most famous horse race is an explosion of emotion, though rarely quite so graphic. The Preakness can't compare there. The Derby is The One, the Preakness the next one.

Its song, "Maryland, My Maryland," lifted the music from the German carol "O Tannenbaum" -- you know it as "Oh Christmas Tree" -- a rather cheesy move, and it's not in the league of the achingly beautiful "My Old Kentucky Home." Yet second fiddle still can play a sweet tune. The Preakness' main hook is that as long as the Derby winner runs, a Triple Crown is possible.

(In the past 32 years, only two didn't show up. In 1985, Robert Brennan sent Spend a Buck to the Jersey Derby at Garden State Park, which, not so coincidentally, Brennan owned. In 1996, Grindstone suffered a career-ending injury in the Derby.)

Marylanders joke that the Derby is "the race they run before the Preakness." Ha. When a stranger, even one from Baltimore, finds out somebody is a trainer or jockey, the inevitable question is "Have you ever won the Kentucky Derby?"

That's not to say the Preakness isn't riveting and significant. The 14-day turnaround is a unique challenge for elite thoroughbreds, who nowadays rarely race more than once a month. American Pharoah's trainer, Bob Baffert, has five Preakness trophies, so that's been no problem for him. He says it's the easiest classic to win, with the Derby the hardest.

The same goes for picking a winner, although it's hard to make a score to get back money lost on the often inscrutable Derby. The Preakness is inordinately formful, with 71 of 140 winning favorites (50.7 percent), including nine of the past 14. Its biggest win payoff was $48.80 (Master Derby, 1975). In the past 10 years, 50-1 shots Giacomo (2005) and Mine That Bird (2009) pulled off Derby shockers.

In the past 18 Preaknesses, bettors trying to beat the Derby winner tore up most of their tickets. Only Orb (2013), Super Saver (2010), Barbaro (who broke down in 2006) and Monarchos (2001) finished worse than third. As Baffert said, "If your horse runs well in the Derby, that means he's in good shape."

The Preakness also is a welcome break from Derby frenzy. Lordly Churchill bills itself as "the world's most legendary racetrack." Funky Old Hilltop is among the most decrepit. From Churchill's backstretch, you gaze at morning sunshine glinting off the majestic Twin Spires. Pimlico's stakes barn is behind the clubhouse and grandstand, and from there the building looks like a factory shut down around 1924 but never demolished.

Yet somehow the place grows on you, even the ancient elevator that sounds as if it's powered by exhausted gerbils. Many trainers and media rate the Preakness their favorite Triple Crown stop. To Baffert, it's "the fun leg. It's a more relaxed atmosphere. We're all in the same barn, so you get to talk to everybody."

Derby week was anything but enjoyable for Baffert. American Pharoah and his undefeated stablemate, Dortmund, gave him what was considered a trainer's best hand since 1948, when Ben Jones ran 1-2 with Citation and Coaltown. Baffert almost maxed out, with third-place Dortmund missing second by two lengths, but he felt relief, not ecstasy.

"All week I thought, 'If I don't win it this year, is it worth the pressure?' " said Baffert, who is 62 and suffered a major heart attack three years ago. "I got sick during the week and was pretty wiped out. I had two loaded guns, and I never felt so much pressure to win."

When American Pharoah showed grit and class to shake off Firing Line, Baffert's reaction to his fourth Derby triumph surprised him. "When he hit the wire, I felt so relaxed," he said. "It was a totally different Derby vibe than I ever felt before."

If American Pharoah wins Saturday, on June 6 at Belmont Park, Baffert will get a fourth chance at a Triple Crown, last won by Affirmed in 1978. After three disappointments, including Real Quiet's historically brutal beat by a nose in 1998, he'd be ready for anything.

As he said of the Derby: "I believe in fate, and if it's going to happen, it's going to happen."

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