03/15/2015 9:51AM

Watchmaker: American Pharoah yet to face true test


It speaks volumes to his brilliance that in this age of the Breeders’ Cup, American Pharoah managed to win the vote for last year’s champion 2-year-old male despite not having raced after Sept. 27. And it was a thrill to see American Pharoah successfully return Saturday from an injury-related absence in the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park.

But I think we need a small dose of realism here.

Yes, in his first start on a wet track and after a slight bobble at the start that caused a front shoe to become displaced, American Pharoah still romped by more than six lengths. But really, with the massive class edge he had on paper, combined with a huge pace advantage he had on his field that gave him an enormous strategic advantage, should American Pharoah have done anything less?

I know. Untapable, last year’s unanimous Eclipse Award-winning 3-year-old filly, was upset at 1-10 just three races before the Rebel in the Azeri. So all of that edge-on-paper stuff doesn’t guarantee a thing.

Still, American Pharoah, who didn’t even have to draw a deep breath last year when he dominated the Grade 1 Del Mar Futurity and Grade 1 FrontRunner, leaving subsequent Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Texas Red almost five lengths back in third in the latter, had as his main competition Saturday Madefromlucky and The Truth Or Else. Madefromlucky struggled in his last start at 1-5 to win a nondescript entry-level allowance race at Gulfstream. The Truth Or Else was a wide-trip second with Lasix in the slowly run Southwest in his last start and was beaten double-digit margins in his three stakes starts last year. Not exactly scary company.

As for American Pharoah’s huge pace advantage, it’s a little tricky making hard comparisons as rain late in the day did change the condition of Oaklawn’s main track. But it does say something that the half-mile and three-quarter splits for the Azeri were 48.96 seconds and 1:13.85, and for the Razorback in race 8, they were 48.26 and 1:12.58, but for the Rebel, they were 49.63 and 1:15.22. It says that no matter how the track might have changed, American Pharoah, as he figured to beforehand, absolutely walked on the early lead.

For me, the big takeaway from American Pharoah’s Rebel effort was not that he was isolated at the finish. It was that the Rebel outing felt just right for him. It was anything but demanding, so he should only build on it.

But if we are being real for a moment here, that does open the door to another matter. American Pharoah now sports three straight brilliant stakes wins. Yet in every one of them, he controlled the pace without any real significant pressure. American Pharoah might get away with that again next time in the Arkansas Derby, but there is no way he will be as fortunate in the Kentucky Derby. Someone in that race will finally hold American Pharoah’s feet to the fire. Maybe he is so good he’ll be able to withstand real pace pressure. Or maybe American Pharoah will do something he has not yet successfully done and effectively rate off the lead. Either way, it’s uncharted territory.

Other Saturday notes

** Like everyone else, I was underwhelmed by Untapable’s uninspiring comeback. And the thing that bothered me most was not that she narrowly lost to Gold Medal Dancer, it was how she was rank on the first turn for no apparent reason.

However, experience has taught me never, ever to write off a champion like Untapable, especially after just one unsatisfying outing. Champions have an uncanny knack of coming back, and if anyone has earned a pass for one sub-par effort, it is Untapable. But I will be disappointed if we don’t see a more characteristic performance from Untapable next time.

** I guess it took her around 18 or 19 starts to put it all together, but late bloomer or not, man, Warren’s Veneda is freaky good right now. Her better-than-seven-length domination of the Santa Margarita was proof that there is no mare in California in her league at this moment.

** Race Day and Midnight Hawk aren’t top handicap horses, but they are good horses and demonstrated such separating themselves from the rest of the field in the Razorback. I have often wondered if Midnight Hawk wouldn’t be a much more accomplished horse if he didn’t have a tendency to hang.

**Finally, a quick word about Donworth, the 3-year-old colt who made his debut at Gulfstream Saturday with glowing recommendations from DRF Clockers, and correctly so. I could detail all the trouble Donworth overcame, and it still wouldn’t have the impact a look at the replay would, so I strongly suggest checking that out. Simply put, Donworth, a Graham Motion-trained son of Tiznow, has the brightest of futures.