Updated on 05/16/2015 8:25PM

American Pharoah wins Preakness on front end, eyes Triple Crown

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Barbara D. Livingston
American Pharoah gives jockey Victor Espinoza his third Preakness Stakes victory, scoring by seven lengths Saturday at Pimlico.

BALTIMORE – The rains came, and American Pharoah reigned.

The Kentucky Derby winner brushed aside seven rivals and deteriorating weather conditions at Pimlico to score a resounding victory Saturday in the 140th Preakness Stakes, which will send him on to the June 6 Belmont Stakes in New York with a chance to become the first Triple Crown winner since 1978.

American Pharoah ($3.80) was sent to the lead by jockey Victor Espinoza and skipped over a main track that had turned to slop after a deluge hit the track beginning about 25 minutes before the race. After setting quick fractions of 22.90 seconds for the opening quarter-mile and 46.49 for a half-mile, Espinoza gave him a breather, and his rivals neared, but American Pharoah was merely toying with them.

Once Espinoza turned him loose anew heading into the lane, American Pharoah bounded clear and rolled to a seven-length victory in 1:58.46 for 1 3/16 miles.

Tale of Verve, a 28-1 shot who only had a maiden win to his credit, rallied for second, with Divining Rod another length back in third. Dortmund was fourth and was followed by Mr. Z, Danzig Moon, Firing Line, and Bodhisattva.

American Pharoah, starting from the rail, didn’t break perfectly but got out well enough to get the lead, especially when Martin Garcia, on stablemate Dortmund, gave him room to maneuver. Only Mr. Z challenged him early.

Firing Line, who might have at least been stalking, broke poorly and wound up near the back of the pack while wide into the first turn, eliminating his chances.

Dortmund was guided to the middle of the track down the backstretch and was one of those to close in on American Pharoah nearing the far turn, but he could not go with American Pharoah in the final quarter-mile.

Divining Rod, given a clever, rail-skimming ride by Javier Castellano, loomed menacingly on the far turn but couldn’t keep up with American Pharoah and surrendered second late to Tale of Verve, who was last of all early and benefited by closing on horses who had been disposed of by American Pharoah.

For Espinoza and trainer Bob Baffert, this will be the second time they have gone to the Belmont in tandem with a chance to sweep the Triple Crown, following War Emblem in 2002. Espinoza also had a shot just last year with California Chrome, who finished fourth. This will be the fourth attempt for Baffert, who has won the Derby and Preakness with the same horse four times, previously with Silver Charm, Real Quiet, and War Emblem. All failed to win the Belmont.

This was the sixth Preakness win for Baffert, tying him with D. Wayne Lukas for second all time behind R.W. Walden, who won the Preakness seven times in the late 1800s. Baffert’s six wins have come with 17 starters in 15 races, a stunning strike rate.

This, though, was certainly the most unusual Preakness Baffert has won, for the conditions at Pimlico deteriorated in the minutes leading up to the race. It had been a warm, muggy afternoon, and then dark storm clouds began to gather, finally depositing their rain – accompanied by wind and occasional flashes of lightning – right as the horses came onto the track. The downpour turned the track from fast to sloppy.

Owner Ahmed Zayat, though, was unconcerned. “We will part the sea,” he said.

Espinoza said he initially did not plan to go for the lead but changed his mind owing to the conditions. “I didn’t want to be getting behind,” he said. “I didn’t want to get dirty. He handled it well. There was so much water, it was just insane. It’s all about confidence. I have so much confidence in American Pharoah.”

American Pharoah had encountered similar conditions when he won the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn in his first start of the year.

“The sign of a good horse is they can handle whatever you throw in their face,” said Zayat, who also bred American Pharoah.

The win was American Pharoah’s sixth straight after a loss in his debut.

“American Pharoah, from Day 1, people have been expecting this,” Baffert said. “The weather made me leery, but great horses do great things. The weather really scared me. I could tell the horses didn’t like it, getting pelted like that.”

But American Pharoah came through it, shining in the gloaming as the sport’s brightest star. And now it’s on to Broadway, where the lights are bright.

“It was a magical moment watching him come down the stretch. I’ve never won this race as easily and as handily,” Baffert said. “I’ve always thought this was the easiest of the three legs. I know everybody right now is sharpening their knives.”

“Bring it on,” Zayat interjected.

“He’s doing all the talking,” Baffert added, referring to American Pharoah. “It’s exciting. It’s so good for racing.”

It has been 37 years since Affirmed became the 11th Triple Crown winner. Since then, 13 horses prior to American Pharoah have won the Derby and Preakness. Twelve ran in the Belmont. All lost.

Espinoza said he will not dwell on what might have been with War Emblem, who was eliminated at the start of the Belmont when he stumbled badly, or California Chrome, who finished fourth after getting stepped on at the start.

“I’ve been very high before, seen the ups and downs,” Espinoza said, “but I always go forward, looking for the next Kentucky Derby, the next Triple Crown.”

– additional reporting by David Grening