05/14/2015 10:31AM

All eyes on American Pharoah in Preakness

Barbara D. Livingston
American Pharoah will break from the rail Saturday in the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico.

BALTIMORE – The first time Bob Baffert had a starter in the Preakness, someone in the infield threw a football at his horse. That was his welcome to the Preakness. Fortunately, the ball wasn’t thrown by Johnny Unitas. The football didn’t hit Cavonnier, and the incident sure didn’t deter Baffert.

In fact, in the years since, Baffert has been the most successful trainer in the second leg of the Triple Crown, racking up five wins since 1997, and he will be heavily favored to get his sixth Saturday, when he sends out the formidable one-two punch of Kentucky Derby winner American Pharoah and Derby third-place finisher Dortmund in the 140th Preakness Stakes at Pimlico.

His five wins have come with just 15 starters in 14 races, a remarkable strike rate. He’s not here just for the crab cakes. All of Baffert’s prior Derby winners – Silver Charm, Real Quiet, and War Emblem – won the Preakness, a streak American Pharoah will be favored to continue. But Baffert also has won the Preakness with Point Given and Lookin At Lucky, both of whom bounced back from Derby defeats to win the Preakness, a feat Dortmund will seek to emulate.

A sixth win would put Baffert on par with D. Wayne Lukas, who has won the Preakness six times with 40 starters, capturing his first with Codex in 1980. R.W. Walden is the only trainer with more, having won the Preakness seven times from 1875-1888.

There are many tentacles tying Baffert and Lukas together in this Preakness. Lukas will be trying to stop the Baffert juggernaut – and move into a tie with Walden for most Preakness wins – with the longshot Mr. Z, who until Wednesday was owned by Ahmed Zayat, the owner of American Pharoah. Baffert also could derail American Pharoah’s Triple Crown hopes with stablemate Dortmund, something Lukas did 20 years ago, when his Timber Country defeated Lukas-trained Derby winner Thunder Gulch.

:: DRF Live: Watch live handicapping analysis of Saturday’s biggest races.

Why would a man like Zayat sell a horse who could potentially beat him? And why would Baffert run another horse against his Derby winner? Simple – business.

Zayat got a generous offer he said he couldn’t refuse for a horse who, though named for him, still has first-level allowance conditions. Mr. Z won a maiden race in his debut last June but has lost 12 straight since, including a 13th-place finish in the Derby. Sold.

Baffert has different clients who own American Pharoah and Dortmund, and the Preakness – an American classic with a $1.5 million purse run an easy drive from the Virginia home of Dortmund owner Kaleem Shah – makes sense for both his horses. He can’t have one owner stand down to benefit another, and Dortmund belongs on merit.

“He deserves another chance,” Baffert said of Dortmund, who suffered the first loss of his career in the Derby after six wins.

A field of eight entered the Preakness, but the focus will be on American Pharoah, who comes into the Preakness with a gaudy résumé – five straight wins, including the Derby, plus last year’s Eclipse Award as champion 2-year-old male. If he wins the Preakness, he will head to the Belmont Stakes on June 6 with a chance to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.

There will be a target on his back. American Pharoah drew the rail for the 1 3/16-mile Preakness, with Dortmund right alongside him. Baffert did not hide his disappointment with the draw, which limits the kind of options American Pharoah enjoyed with his wide post in the Derby.

“I didn’t like the draw,” Baffert said Thursday morning at Pimlico. “I hate seeing them next to each other like that.”

:: Preakness: Contenders and news

But American Pharoah has only seven rivals to outrun this time, not 17, and he has shown the ability to flee the rail and win. It will be up to jockey Victor Espinoza to work out a trip from there, one option being to keep it simple and just go.

Dortmund made the lead in the Derby, shadowed by Firing Line and American Pharoah. In this race, if American Pharoah goes, Dortmund might have a target, which could be of benefit. He also is a big, strong colt, so coming back on two weeks’ rest should not be a concern. And he raced on the rail in the Derby, which might not have been the best part of the track that day.

Firing Line ran a tremendous race to finish second in the Derby, beaten just one length by American Pharoah. He should get a good, stalking trip from his outside post.

Danzig Moon was fifth in the Derby and retains jockey Julien Leparoux, who chose him over Divining Rod.

DRF FORMULATOR FACT: No. 4 Danzig Moon. Trainer Mark Casse is 29-0-2-3 over the past three years in dirt route Grade 1 stakes. Click for more details. Mike Hogan

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Divining Rod is the best of the three horses in this race who did not run in the Derby. He won the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland five weeks ago. Javier Castellano picked up the mount.

Bodhisattva, the choice of Steely Dan fans, is the only horse in the race with a win at Pimlico, having captured the Tesio last time out.

Tale of Verve will be the longest shot in the field. He won a maiden race last time out at Keeneland in his sixth start and has a career-best Beyer Speed Figure of just 72.

DRF FORMULATOR FACT: No. 5 Tale of Verve. Trainer Dallas Stewart is 21-0-3-3 over the past five years in dirt route Grade 1 stakes. Click for more details. Mike Hogan

The Preakness is the 13th race on a 14-race card that begins at 10:30 a.m. Eastern. Post time is 6:18 p.m. The race will be televised live by NBC during a telecast that begins at 4:30. The undercard races run between 2:30 and 4:30 will be shown on NBCSN.

According to the National Weather Service, the high temperature here Saturday will be 87 degrees, and there is a 40 percent chance of scattered thunderstorms.