04/12/2015 11:17AM

Watchmaker: Baffert pair reminds of all-time greats

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On Saturday night, I posted the following on Twitter:

“This is how I see Baffert’s hand: American Pharoah is kinda like Seattle Slew, Dortmund is kinda reminiscent of Affirmed. Powerful stuff.”

If you’re familiar with me, you know I throw plaudits around like sewer covers. I think the term “great” is grossly overused in our game. But sometimes the spirit moves you, and I said what I said in that Twitter post because I meant it.

I’m not saying the Bob Baffert-trained pair of American Pharoah and Dortmund is as good as Seattle Slew and Affirmed. That would be ridiculous at this point. The latter two were Triple Crown winners and among the game’s all-time greats. American Pharoah and Dortmund haven’t even made it to the starting gate for the Kentucky Derby yet. But if you don’t see certain similarities between American Pharoah and Seattle Slew and Dortmund and Affirmed at this stage of their careers, then you either weren’t around when Seattle Slew and Affirmed were doing their thing, or you don’t remember.

American Pharoah, like Seattle Slew, has an undeniable brilliance about him. He’s got blazing speed and hasn’t been challenged in any of his victories, just like Seattle Slew at this point. But a lot like Seattle Slew, there are serious questions about who American Pharoah has beaten this year.

Younger folks might be surprised to know that even after he swept the Triple Crown, Seattle Slew really wasn’t embraced by the racing public because he did what he did against the Run Dusty Runs and Sanhedrins of the world. You don’t remember them? There is a reason for that. Seattle Slew’s greatness wasn’t fully acknowledged until he was 4.

It’s not American Pharoah’s fault that he was in the gate with nothing in his two starts this year at Oaklawn, but even if he did keep good company last year, the fact that he has kept questionable company lately still is there. And don’t think for a second that won’t keep a certain segment of the racing public – call them wise guys if you want – from fully embracing American Pharoah until he does beat a top-quality field, like, you know, Seattle Slew eventually did.

Dortmund, like Affirmed, has a certain steely toughness about him. Like Affirmed, Dortmund will use any method, whether it be going to the lead or coming from off the pace, to beat you. And like Affirmed, Dortmund has a foil to help demonstrate how good he is. After losing two close decisions to Dortmund, Firing Line went to New Mexico and won the Sunland Derby literally by the length of the stretch. As my friend Ernie Munick noted, what Firing Line did at Sunland was a lot like what Alydar used to do when he got away from Affirmed.

I gushed over Dortmund in this space last week after his Santa Anita Derby, so let’s focus for a moment on American Pharoah and his romp in Saturday’s Arkansas Derby. For the first time in any of his victories, American Pharoah did something I wanted to see, which is concede the early lead and still be effective. And was he ever effective, running off to score by eight in time fast enough for a 105 Beyer Speed Figure without ever drawing so much as a deep breath.

However, as genuinely exciting as American Pharoah’s display was, it wouldn’t be right not to note how things could easily be very different for him in Louisville, and not just in terms of quality of opposition, which most certainly will be exponentially tougher. I’m talking about trip. It’s one thing to indulge an overmatched longshot on a suicide mission for the early lead as American Pharoah did in the Arkansas Derby. Although American Pharoah demonstrated he can rate, he still had another perfect trip, something he has had in every one of his wins.

Yes, I know that American Pharoah’s speed and obvious quality makes him good enough to make his own perfect trip every time he goes to the gate. But what happens to American Pharoah against a far better field in the Derby if someone (or two) goes crazy fast early (which has been known to happen), or if he breaks a quarter-step slow, gets momentarily shuffled, and finds himself seventh going into the first turn? Can American Pharoah overcome that?
He might. Big Brown came from farther off the pace to win his Derby than I thought he would because he was just so much the best. Maybe the same is true with American Pharoah over what looks like a high quality 3-year-old crop, and we just don’t know it yet. But I just have more faith that Dortmund (who, by pure coincidence, is by Big Brown) would have more success overcoming a trip like that. We’ll find out soon enough.

Either way, what a hand Baffert has going into this Derby.

Other notes

** I don’t care what she was in with – I was knocked out by Beholder’s comeback in Friday’s Santa Lucia. I was less impressed with Untapable’s win in the Apple Blossom, but her performance was several levels better than her indifferent second in her seasonal bow, and it’s good to see her move in the right direction.

** Speaking of moving in the right direction, no one can deny Race Day his position as one of the best older males in the country any more. His domination of his Oaklawn Handicap field was a “Wow” performance.

** Nice rebound for Protonico in the Ben Ali. I like how Protonico, who is best as a closer, went to the lead this time because there was no other speed in the race. I like that versatility, and there are plenty of handicap-division races out there that Protonico is good enough to win.

** While on the subject of changing running styles, Divining Rod looked like a completely different, and better, horse winning the Lexington after employing rating tactics. And though he only managed a second as the favorite, Donworth was making only his second career start and first at two turns. He will be a good one.