LOUISVILLE, Ky. – This time there was no finishing second for owner Ahmed Zayat in the Kentucky Derby.
The owner of Zayat Stables shook off a bad case of second-itis before a record-breaking crowd of 170,513 to capture Kentucky Derby 141 with super-horse American Pharoah ($7.80). Zayat, emphatic about breaking his personal Derby curse, shouted “No more seconds!” in the post-race news conference while flanked by his son, Justin.
“In seconds that emotion went from somebody who is crying out of fear, that they’re going to take it again from us, to actually you have done it,” said Zayat. “Tears of joy. It was like a euphoria of emotions. I still cannot believe it.”
Overcoming placings with Bodemeister (2012), Nehro (2011) and Pioneerof the Nile (2009), the Pharoah will provide the sport some true hope that the Triple Crown trophy could make an appearance in the Big Apple in five weeks. The first order of business, however, for the Derby winner is a date in Baltimore in two weeks at Pimlico Race Course to attempt to claim the Preakness, the second jewel of the Triple Crown.
American Pharoah avenged his own sire’s second-place finish in 2009 with the win that gave trainer Bob Baffert his fourth Derby victory. The feat ties him with trainers D. Wayne Lukas and H.J. Thompson for second place on the all-time list.
Baffert was relaxed and will head to Old Hilltop in two weeks to keep the momentum going. “The next one is – I call it the fun one," Baffert said. “You know, you’re coming off a Derby high, going in there to Baltimore. And the Preakness is one of my favorite races. We’re just going to enjoy it.”
This colt has a fluid running style that should make him a prohibitive favorite in Maryland, even though Firing Line was ahead of him on Saturday when they hit the Preakness distance of 1 3/16 miles. Of course, he won’t be breaking from as far an outside post as he did in Louisville, so he’ll be all the more dangerous.
Jockey Victor Espinoza gave American Pharoah a perfect ride, staying out of trouble early, getting him into stalking position going into the first turn and avoiding being caught wide. Espinoza claimed his second straight Derby victory and his third career in America’s most famous race by a length over Firing Line. He became the seventh jockey all-time to win the Kentucky Derby three times and first since Calvin Borel to win back-to-back.
Every jockey coming off the track at Churchill after the race was using superlatives about American Pharoah, something you don’t typically hear after a big race. It wasn’t the usual complaints about the track or a bad trip. Adjectives such as “freak” and “really good” were being tossed around by some of the best jockeys in the world.
Dortmund, the third-place finisher, broke nicely and went right to the lead and set some quick early fractions, going 23.24 and 47.34 seconds in the first two quarters of the race. Jockey Martin Garcia insisted after the race that it was an honest pace, but in the end, the energy exerted cost him the race.
That fact was confirmed by Firing Line’s jockey Gary Stevens, who made the correct decision not to challenge Dortmund during the early going.
“It was a good trip, he was a little more aggressive going into the first turn than I would have liked,” said Stevens. “I hooked up with Dortmund and there was a small second going into the first turn that I was going to drop his head and let him go in front of Dortmund. I looked over at Martin and Dortmund was pulling him as hard as I was getting pulled. I elected to move away from him to give both horses a little bit of breathing room,” said Stevens, a Hall of Famer.
That decision proved to be the right one as Firing Line took over at the top of the stretch, but as he was heading down the lane to an impending victory, Stevens started hearing footsteps and he knew who it had to be. “I felt him at the 5/16ths and I saw a shadow and then I heard another horse and I heard a jockey encourage him,” said Stevens. “I took a peek behind me and I saw the Zayat colors and I knew who it was and I wasn’t too surprised.”
It was an all-California trifecta as Dortmund hung on behind Firing Line to finish third. Garcia gave the California trio a tip of the cap.
“American Pharoah’s a freak and he showed it today,” Garcia said. “Those are the best 3-year-olds in the country right now. I don’t think many could beat those three, especially the winner.”
Frosted completed the superfecta, closing with a late run and just missing overtaking Dortmund for the show at the wire. Jockey Joel Rosario said race position cost him a shot at hitting the board. “It was a good trip,” Rosario said. “I was a little bit wide when I past the half and had another horse next to me and we were running the same speed, so I had to stay there on the outside. But he put in a really good run after that,” said Rosario, who won the 2013 Derby aboard Orb.
For Ahmed Zayat, the Derby victory and curse-breaker is a dream come true. He made his money as a beverage distributor and manufacturer in Egypt, the largest one in the Middle East before he sold it to Heineken International. He entered thoroughbred racing in 2005 and has quickly made an impact in a sport in which it is difficult to achieve the highest pinnacles.
Two years ago, Ogden Phipps claimed his first Derby victory after a lifetime being in the game. That fact was not lost on Zayat, who clearly has his sights set on bigger things in the next few weeks.
“What gave 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 he had brilliance to him. His demeanor, his aura, his conformation, the way he moved,” said Zayat.
The fastest two minutes in sports lived up to its reputation Saturday evening, and the winner is just getting started.
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.