05/16/2015 7:27PM

American Pharoah impresses in Preakness


BALTIMORE – I don’t know how fast American Pharoah’s Preakness score will come up on Beyer Speed Figures. As a believer and maker of my own figures for almost four decades, it surprises even me to say that I don’t care. That Preakness, for me, was the best race American Pharoah has ever run. By far. I’ve had my reservations about him, about his perfect trips and all that. But not anymore.

In one of the most surreal major-event scenes I’ve ever seen thanks to a wicked prerace thunderstorm that was so severe it caused Baltimore’s Office of Emergency Management to evacuate the infield, American Pharoah recovered from something of a flatfooted start to rush up under hustling tactics and set the pace under pressure from Mr. Z.

Mr. Z, I immediately thought, was being snotty with the way he was making the Kentucky Derby winner’s job difficult early on in, not coincidentally, his first start away from the Zayat Stables banner that American Pharoah still flies. Mr. Z made American Pharoah set what felt like a very fast pace for the footing, which appeared sticky and deep after the deluge.

But that early pressure didn’t matter. At all. American Pharoah shook Mr. Z off like a gnat on the backstretch, only to be faced with a new, legitimate challenge from Divining Rod on the far turn.

Divining Rod has improved significantly since switching to rating tactics, was clearly relishing the sloppy going, and tipped off the inside late on the far turn to move at American Pharoah like a horse who was going to give the favorite all he could handle.

And as soon as I started calculating in my mind how much American Pharoah might have left after his early exertions, and how much run Divining Rod would sustain, American Pharoah ended whatever suspense there was in a flash. He broke open the Preakness so quickly in upper stretch that it left Divining Rod reeling to the point that he was nailed for second by, of all horses, Tale of Verve.

This, to me, was the definition of impressive.

But does this mean I think American Pharoah will win the Belmont Stakes and sweep the Triple Crown in three weeks?

Let me put it this way: Before I saw how American Pharoah won Saturday, I thought he was a stone-cold bet-against in the Belmont. I figured he’d be ripe to be taken out in the Belmont because he will be making his fourth start in only eight weeks, and against really, really good, fresh horses in Materiality and Frosted, who ran tremendous races in defeat in the Derby.

As gobsmacked by how good he was in the Preakness, American Pharoah didn’t make me do a complete 180. But he has moved me from being certain he has no shot in the Belmont to thinking he has a chance, and that says a lot for a stubborn guy like me.

Short notes:

• For the record, Mr. Z finished 17 1/4 lengths behind American Pharoah.

• The wild weather just before the Preakness makes me want to give a total pass to Dortmund (fourth), Danzig Moon (sixth), and Firing Line (seventh). I know they are better horses than that.

• Before the rains came, the main track at Pimlico on Friday and Saturday was playing toward inside runners. For that reason, I’m downgrading Fame and Power’s win in the Sir Barton on the Preakness undercard and upgrading Donworth’s third in that race after a wide, off-the-pace trip.

• Put Bocaiuva on your stable mail. Her fourth in the Gallorette, also on the Preakness undercard, was her second straight nightmare trip from two U. S. starts. But she showed enough Saturday for me to say she can run.

• The Black-Eyed Susan and Pimlico Special might have been the ostensible features at Pimlico on Friday, but for me, the Jim McKay Turf Sprint and the Allaire duPont Distaff were the more interesting races.

Ben’s Cat, the remarkable 9-year-old gelding who inched closer to career earnings of $2.5 million with his shadow-of-the-wire score in the McKay, is the rare horse admired by both hardened horseplayers and the “Rainbows and Unicorns” crowd. He’s now won 29 of 47 career starts (with 11 seconds and thirds), and some folks were only half kidding when they said after the race that Ben’s Cat should be considered for the Hall of Fame.

Before that happens, I would like to see Ben’s Cat tackle the best turf sprinters around this fall in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint at Keeneland. I understand why Ben’s Cat hasn’t run in that race in recent years; going about 6 1/2 furlongs on the downhill course at Santa Anita doesn’t seem like his thing, not to mention he would have to be supplemented to the Breeders’ Cup.

But while it’s poor form to spend other people’s money, Ben’s Cat has earned more than enough to meet the supplemental costs, and going 5 1/2 furlongs at Keeneland, which wouldn’t be a long ship, would be right in his wheelhouse. There really is no good reason for him not to target the Turf Sprint this year.

• Stopchargingmaria, who crushed her field in the duPont Distaff, is a filly some folks like to not like. I get it. Stopchargingmaria took advantage of extremely weak fields last year when she won the Alabama, Coaching Club American Oaks, and Black-Eyed Susan. She has had a blessed career.

However, there is no reason to think Stopchargingmaria’s fortuitous run won’t continue again this year. Beholder, when she gets back in action after a minor illness, likely will stay in California. And the other big mare out there, Warren’s Veneda, showed vulnerability by losing her last start.

Don’t Tell Sophia is focusing on a fall campaign, and Untapable, despite her win in the Apple Blossom, just doesn’t yet seem like the Untapable who was so imposing when she was at her best last year. That means there will be a lot of significant stakes out there with soft fields that Stopchargingmaria can victimize, just like last year.

• As modest as her previous form was, Keen Pauline’s upset of the Black-Eyed Susan was pretty much sealed early when Martin Garcia wrangled Luminance back off the lead. That handed Keen Pauline a walking early lead that she would not relinquish.

Include Betty, Ahh Chocolate, and Danessa Deluxe all came from well off the pace to finish second, third, and fourth. Their efforts can be upgraded considering the slow fractions they tried to rally into. But I wouldn’t rely too heavily going forward on any in this group. I had the sense after the Kentucky Oaks that the 3-year-old dirt fillies might wind up taking turns beating each other this year, and I still feel that way.

• Commissioner was clearly best in winning the Pimlico Special. I suspect he’s a Grade 2 horse at best, but like Stopchargingmaria, there will be lots of opportunities this year to bank some serious cash.