By Gene Kershner
SPECIAL TO THE NEWS
BALTIMORE – In Ancient Egypt, pharaohs were sometimes viewed as gods on Earth. On Saturday afternoon, when the weather gods unleashed their fury on Pimlico Race Course, an American Pharoah made it very clear that he can handle even the most adverse conditions on a racetrack.
Navigating the wind and rain that swept over Pimlico shortly before the race, the son of Pioneerof the Nile thundered home with a seven-length victory over his closest competitor in Saturday’s 140th edition of the Preakness Stakes. His powerful run in front of a record 131,680 rain-soaked fans secured the middle jewel of racing’s Triple Crown and he will head to New York City as the 14th horse since 1978 to seek racing history.
American Pharoah was the only colt in the race that had won over a wet track, winning the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn in March. On Saturday he again relished the sloppy conditions, opening up his lead at the top of the stretch and splashed his way to the wire. His sire, Pioneerof the Nile, finished second in the 2009 Kentucky Derby on an off track, hinting at American Pharoah’s propensity for a muddy track.
He became the first colt since Tabasco Cat in 1994 to win from the rail and second horse since 1961 to accomplish that feat. After stumbling slightly at the break, he righted himself immediately and took off for the lead, a tactic that proved to be a winning one. Jockey Victor Espinoza won his third Preakness in seven career starts in the historic race.
“It was a fast pace, but I had no choice,” said Espinoza. The talented jockey will take his tack to Belmont Park for the third time in his career with a shot at the Triple Crown. His first two efforts were setbacks in 2002 (War Emblem) and last year with California Chrome, so the taste is fresh in Espinoza’s mouth.
The Preakness winner brought his “A game” to Baltimore, dispelling his detractors who found fault in his narrow Derby victory two weeks ago. He controlled the race from start to finish, slowing down the second half-mile after fast early fractions when he went to the lead.
Track conditions were the worst possible, a mini river was actually running down American Pharoah’s inside path down the straightaway in front of the grandstand. However, if any horse could handle an on-track river it would be one with Egyptian connections in the Zayats and a sire with the Nile in its name.
Trainer Bob Baffert continued his dominance in the Preakness, the sixth of his career, moving him into second on the all-time list. He has touted this horse since his 2-year-old campaign, saying he was the best 2-year-old he ever trained, and he’s trained a lot of them. But 2-year-old campaigns don’t always translate into successful sophomore seasons.
Baffert has trained American Pharoah masterfully, having him ready to fire just two weeks after an exhaustive Derby effort. His job becomes immensely more difficult in three weeks when he’ll line up against at least five or six horses that skipped Baltimore to point toward the Belmont.
Trainer Todd Pletcher alone may have three horses in New York looking to thwart the Pharoah’s Triple Crown dreams. His possible charges include Madefromlucky, Materiality and Carpe Diem, all capable horses from Pletcher’s home base at Belmont. Last year’s Belmont upset horse, Tonalist, came out of the Peter Pan Stakes, a race won last week by Madefromlucky.
Other potential challengers in New York include Mubtaahij, Frosted and Keen Ice, three late running horses who will hope for a fast pace in the Belmont Stakes to close into against American Pharoah. All three ran in the Kentucky Derby and sat this weekend on the sidelines.
Putting into perspective how long it’s been since Affirmed beat Alydar at Big Sandy to claim racing’s last Triple Crown in 1978, gasoline prices ranged from 65 to 71 cents per gallon. The Bee Gees’ “Saturday Night Fever” album was No. 1 for 24 weeks and the Washington Bullets were the NBA champions. Muhammad Ali was the heavyweight champion of the world, regaining the title he lost to Leon Spinks earlier in the year.
Fresh horses, a grueling fifth race in 12 weeks and the Test of a Champion, a 1-1/2 mile trek around Belmont Park, the longest of the Triple Crown races, awaits American Pharoah on June 6.
A throng of 90,000 strong will be rooting him on.
Maybe it’ll just take another big thunderstorm to end the drought.
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association and tweets @EquiSpace.