Updated on 03/16/2015 10:29AM

American Pharoah’s return adds fuel to fire

Shigeki Kikkawa
American Pharoah, training last month at Santa Anita, has been lighting it up in his workouts.

Carpe Diem, Dortmund, and Upstart, each among the leading 2-year-olds from last year, all have already raced and won this year, creating buzz both individually and collectively toward the May 2 Kentucky Derby. But the horse adjudged the best of his generation last year is ready to step back into the ring.

American Pharoah, the Eclipse Award-winning 2-year-old male, is set for his return Saturday in the Grade 2, $750,000 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park, the first of just two preps he is scheduled to have before the Derby. His race will be closely watched because a powerful victory could make American Pharoah the favorite for the Derby.

This will be the first race for American Pharoah since Sept. 27, when he won the Grade 1 FrontRunner Stakes at Santa Anita in his third start and his first try around two turns. He would have been the favorite for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile but was withdrawn the week of the race, given time off, and did not work again until Feb. 2.

:: DERBY WATCH: Top 20 list | Kentucky Derby: Who's hot, who's not

As a result, American Pharoah comes into the Rebel off just six workouts. It’s an abbreviated tab for a 1 1/16-mile race following more than three months of inactivity, but he has gone so well in his last couple of works, and showed so much natural talent last year, that he will be a deserving heavy favorite.

“He’s just a very, very brilliant horse,” said his trainer, Bob Baffert, who also has the outstanding Derby prospect Dortmund. “He does everything so easy.”

American Pharoah – bred and owned by Ahmed Zayat – has been highly regarded since he first came to Baffert last year. He trained so sharply prior to his debut at Del Mar that he went off at 7-5 against what proved to be a loaded maiden field. But he misbehaved in the paddock and post parade and finished fifth of nine.

Baffert had touted American Pharoah as his best 2-year-old. Someone sitting in Baffert’s box remarked after the race that if that was his best 2-year-old, he was in trouble.

“He freaked out,” Baffert said, referring to American Pharoah. “He was wearing blinkers, and I think he felt closed in. He got upset in the paddock, got mad going to the gate. It was really disappointing.”

Baffert took the blinkers off American Pharoah for his subsequent works, and he continued to train sharply, so Baffert decided to trust his instincts and made the late decision to run American Pharoah as a maiden in the Grade 1 Del Mar Futurity. Since Baffert hadn’t originally planned on sending American Pharoah in the race, Martin Garcia, who had ridden American Pharoah in his debut, had already committed to another Baffert colt, Holiday Camp. Victor Espinoza was open.

“I basically picked him up at the draw,” Baffert said.

Without blinkers, with Espinoza, and following several schooling sessions in the paddock, American Pharoah ran like he had trained.

“He ran off the screen,” Baffert said.

American Pharoah got a Beyer Speed Figure of 101 while winning the seven-furlong race by nearly five lengths.

Twenty-four days later, American Pharoah stretched out to 1 1/16 miles in the FrontRunner at Santa Anita and again romped, this time by 3 1/4 lengths, again recording a 101 Beyer. He thus became the favorite for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

But four days before the Juvenile, the day after entries were taken, American Pharoah was scratched. Baffert at the time said he hoped the injury was a “deep, deep foot bruise.” Zayat on Feb. 3 said he thought American Pharoah hurt a suspensory ligament, but that the injury could not be detected via X-rays or ultrasound. This past week, Baffert said he did not want to get into specifics.

“We don’t discuss injuries,” he said. “We gave him enough time. Now we’re good.”

American Pharoah got two months off while remaining in Baffert’s Santa Anita barn. His first baby steps back were walking under tack at the barn.

“He didn’t lose physical condition,” Baffert said. “I kept him light so he wouldn’t get heavy.”

:: ROAD TO THE KENTUCKY DERBY: Prep races, point standings, replays

American Pharoah did not go back to the track until Jan. 3, when he merely jogged. After doing that and then progressing to gallops, he was ready for his first work Feb. 2. He has had six works, all within 33 days, the last three at six or seven furlongs. The most recent was a dazzling six-furlong gate drill last Friday in 1:10.40 in which he galloped out a full mile.

“He just galloped around there,” Baffert said.

American Pharoah flew to Arkansas on Wednesday. If he comes back as good as he left, this Derby chase is about to get a lot more interesting.

– additional reporting by David Grening

A prrevious version of this article incorrectly stated that American Pharoah was scratched from the Breeders' Cup Juvenile five days before the race. He was scratched four days before the race.