American Pharoah, sired by Pioneerof the Nile and out of the mare Littleprincessema, and owned by Egyptian breeder and business tycoon Ahmed Zayat, romped to a dazzling seven length front-running victory in the 140th Preakness Stakes at historic Pimlico Race Course.
With temperatures in the mid 80s and air filled with thick humidity, the 2015 Preakness day races and traditional raucous infield festivities went forward as if they would outrun the long-held forecast for storms later in the day. The sun was shining and a record crowd of 131,680 fans were in attendance.
Throughout the day, handicappers checked their smartphones for the latest weather updates to see if the rainstorm would appear before the 6:21 pm Preakness. American Pharoah’s 9-length victory in the slop-filled Arkansas Derby five weeks earlier suggested a clear advantage in sloppy conditions.
As the Preakness Stakes drew near and the horses made their way to the saddling area, dreaded dark clouds rolled over the Baltimore, Maryland racetrack. Within minutes, winds picked up and lightening began to strike. Tens of thousands of infield fans scurried for any place of shelter. Across the track, thousands of patrons in box seats on the grandstand apron were evacuated by authorities and moved indoors. As lightening cracked, trainers rushed to saddle their runners. On any other day, an impending race under these conditions would’ve been delayed until the weather passed, but not today; not this race.
Two weeks earlier, the Neilsen Ratings showed that 17 million Americans tuned into NBC Sports to watch the Kentucky Derby. Such a rating trumps any modern day MLB World Series game or NBA Finals’ number. In the televised sports world, only the NFL playoffs and the NCAA basketball Final Four top the viewership of the Kentucky Derby. And with American Pharoah, the pop culture favorite prevailing in the Derby, history shows that the Preakness will generate a similar viewership rating. Television rules the entire professional sports world and as such, come Hell or indeed, high water, this race was going to run on time. As the horses went out for the parade, at 4 minutes to post, a curtain was seemingly pulled from the skies and the rain began to pour.
The three-year-old colt owned by Zayat, would once again get a chance to live up to his mud-loving Pioneer of the Nile pedigree and namesake. In just mere minutes, the Pimlico track, sealed flat thirty minutes earlier, turned quickly into a surface of puddles, streams and pure mud.
During the pre-race warm up, wave upon wave of heavy rain pelted the horses while they became visually indecipherable from the grandstand in the misty gray haze. The jockeys’ boots filled with ounces of water and silks were soaked and saddle towels drenched as the horse and riders made their way to the gate. Regardless of outcome, the 2015 Preakness Stakes would not be soon be forgotten.
After breaking a step slow from the rail post postition, Jockey Victor Espinoza hustled American Pharoah to the lead. They cruised past the stands in a rapid 22.4 first quarter mile with a determined Mr. Z, trained by Hall of Famer, D. Wayne Lukas, just off his flanks.
Despite such an enthusiastic first quarter for a one-mile-and-three-sixteenths race, American Pharoah settled into a comfortable stride and began to travel as advertised under wet conditions—almost effortlessly. As the band of eight splashed their way down the backstretch, it appeared as though the “Curse of the Nile” was beginning to take its toll on the second choice and Kentucky Derby runner up, Firing Line. With Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens aboard, Firing Line had stumbled leaving the gate and was struggling to find good footing in fifth position. American Pharoah’s glitzy stablemate, Dortmund, was faltering in his own right while in fourth place and not handling the mud, either.
Energetic fractions continued as the field raced up the backstretch. Jockey Corey Nakatani, sitting second, four lengths back on Mr. Z, closed the leader’s margin to a length approaching the far turn. Same time, Diving Rod, a longshot from the back of the pack, was moving better than anyone. He was quickly passing through the field and giving the appearance of the most serious threat to American Pharoah. It turned out to be an optical illusion. By now, mid-way around the turn, Victor Espinoza glanced back, saw Diving Rod gaining, and gave the champ his queue to go. American Pharoah switched gears and in a snap, opened up by 3 lengths, then 4, and cruised past the finish line unchallenged, a widening 7 lengths…and 10 lbs. heavier! As the Preakness jockeys weighed out after the race, it was discovered that between rain water in their boots, hitch-hiking mud and soaked clothing, each picked up approximately 10 lbs.
Longshot and recent maiden victor, Tale of Verve closed from last place to finish second, passing Divining Rod in the final jumps.
American Pharoah’s win was the widest margin of victory since Smarty Jones won the Preakness by 11 1/2 lengths in 2004.
Handicappers as well as horsemen had questioned the resolve of American Pharoah following a grueling stretch drive in his recent narrow Kentucky Derby victory. Could he physically rebound with only a two week breather between starts?
Winning trainer Bob Baffert made quick work of that question following the race, “Great horses do great things,and he showed that today.”
“My wife said ’22-and-change’ and I said, ‘He’s doing it pretty easy.’ He slowed it down a little bit down the backside. Victor said he couldn’t see anything in front of him. When I saw his ears were pricked I knew the cotton balls were dry. I knew he was just cruising around there.”
“It went very well,” Espinoza said. “He bounced out of there. He broke a little tiny bit slow, and I pushed him to the front.”
“He’s just an amazing horse,” Baffert continued. “Everybody talks about the greatness and he’s starting to show it. To me, they have to prove it. Today, the way he did it. He’s just so fast; the way he ran. It was like poetry in motion.
He broke a little bit awkward, but once Victor got him rolling again, he had to deal with Mr. Z. I knew he would have to deal with him for a little ways.”
“I always told everybody American Pharoah would show up today,” owner Zayat said, drenched after his trip to the winner’s circle. “Indeed he did. He is the real deal.”
“It’s unbelievable. I couldn’t be any happier, not just for my family, and Bob (Baffert) and Victor (Espinoza), but for the whole racing world,” owner Ahmed Zayat said. “We need a star. He’s indeed the real deal. Please God, let’s continue, let the fun start!”
American Pharoah became Baffert’s sixth Preakness winner and fourth Kentucky Derby champion to take the middle jewel of the Triple Crown. The Hall of Fame trainer has failed to saddle a Triple Crown winner in the Belmont, finishing second with Silver Charm (1997) and Real Quiet (1998) in the 1 1/2-mile classic. War Emblem (2002) was never a factor in his bid. Baffert also captured the Preakness with Point Given (2001) and Lookin At Lucky (2010).
Espinoza has had two chances to ride a Triple Crown champion, coming up short with California Chrome, who finished fourth last year, and War Emblem.
With the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes added to his resume, American Pharoah will now head back to Kentucky to prepare for his fate with destiny.
The ever elusive Belmont Stakes. The third and final leg of Thoroughbred Racing’s Triple Crown. Only 12 horses have accomplished the feat in the history of these events. Thirteen horses have accomplished a Derby-Preakness victory since the last Triple Crown winner, Affirmed in 1978, only to only to fall in defeat before an enormous grandstand of New York’s Belmont Park.
Next stop, Saturday June 6th in Elmont, New York, to see if American Pharoah will be the next ruler to seize the Triple Crown!
WRITTEN REPORT AND ALL PHOTOS BY: Rick Buckley