2015 Kentucky Derby Winner: Assessing American Pharoah's Triple Crown Chances

Gianni Verschueren@ReverschPassFeatured ColumnistMay 3, 2015

LOUISVILLE, KY - MAY 02:  Jockey Victor Espinoza celebrates atop of American Pharoah #18 on his way winners circle after winning the 141st running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 2, 2015 in Louisville, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

American Pharoah emerged as the comfortable winner of the 2015 Kentucky Derby on Saturday, and Bob Baffert's prized colt will now have his eyes set on the Preakness Stakes, the second leg of the 2015 Triple Crown, in two weeks.

It's been 37 years since Affirmed last managed the elusive feat in 1978. Horse racing fans across the globe watched in agony as California Chrome fell just short of the ultimate prize last year.

Jockey Victor Espinoza rode California Chrome last year and returned to Churchill Downs with American Pharoah in 2015, picking up right where he left off. Here are the full results of the 141st Kentucky Derby:

Kentucky Derby Results
118American PharoahVictor EspinozaBob Baffert-----
210Firing LineGary StevensSimon Callaghan1
38DortmundMartin GarciaBob Baffert3
415FrostedJoel RosarioKiaran McLaughlin3 1/4
55Danzig MoonJulien LeparouxMark Casse6 1/2
63MaterialityJavier CastellanoTodd Pletcher7 3/4
714Keen IceKent DesormeauxDale Romans8 3/4
86MubtaahijChristophe SoumillonMike de Kock9 1/2
913ItsaknockoutLuis SaezTodd Pletcher10 1/4
102Carpe DiemJohn VelazquezTodd Pletcher11
1121FrammentoCorey NakataniNick Zito12
129BoloRafael BejaranoCarla Gaines12 3/4
1317Mr. ZRamon VazquezD. Wayne Lukas15 1/2
141Ocho Ocho OchoElvis TrujilloJim Cassidy15 1/2
1520Far RightMike SmithRon Moquett15 3/4
1616War StoryJoe TalamoTom Amoss19 1/4
174TencendurManny FrancoGeorge Weaver35
1819UpstartJose OrtizRick Violette Jr.60 1/2
7El KabeirCalvin BorelJohn TerranovaSCR
11StanfordFlorent GerouxTodd PletcherSCR
12International StarMiguel MenaMichael MakerSCR

The full video highlights of the race are below:

Many were expecting another blowout similar to California Chrome's fantastic run last year, and while the ultimate margin of victory may not look as impressive on paper, American Pharoah didn't disappoint.

Espinoza steered the colt wide to avoid traffic before sprinting home, as shared by USA Today's Dan Wolken:

Dan Wolken @DanWolken

Victor Espinoza was so confident he went way wide just to avoid any trouble. This horse was much the best.

He also made history Saturday by becoming the first horse in history to start the Run of the Roses from Post 17 and win, via ESPN Stats & Info:

That fact alone should have punters giddy with excitement. The colt figuratively overcame the odds by winning on Saturday, setting up the kind of scenario Hollywood dreams of. If anyone could finally win another Triple Crown after so long, why not the horse who started his campaign by breaking a longstanding curse?

Espinoza came close to winning the Triple Crown last year, as California Chrome comfortably won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes before suffering an injury during the start of the Belmont Stakes.

California Chrome still managed to finish fourth, but he may as well have finished dead last. Hearts were broken, and one can only imagine how Espinoza must have felt.

He's back this year, riding another potential superstar, and via America's Best Racing, he was completely blown away by American Pharoah's performance on Saturday:

America'sBestRacing @ABRLive

More 3-time Derby-winner Espinoza: "He's tremendous ... He's an unbelievable horse." @KentuckyDerby @ChurchillDowns @NBCSports

Espinoza knows a thing or two about special horses, and if he was that impressed by American Pharoah after riding California Chrome last year, it's yet another reason to start believing the Triple Crown triumph could finally happen this year.

Baffert confirmed after the race he plans on entering the horse in the Preakness Stakes, so long as everything goes well between now and May 16:

Derby News @KentuckyDerbyCJ

"If all goes well, I don't see any reason" not to run in the Preakness with American Pharoah, Bob Baffert says.

Plenty of pundits believe in the horse's chances as well, including Richard Deitsh of Sports Illustrated and Bruce Beck of WNBC-TV:

Richard Deitsch @richarddeitsch

I've said this before but American Pharaoh has the look of a Triple Crown winner. That was impressive given the trip.

Bruce Beck @BruceBeck4NY

Closer than I thought - but this horse can still get better! Expect to see a Triple Crown try this yr again at Belmont! @TheNyra

Beck's observation should be cause for concern. American Pharoah covered more distance than his competitors in running so wide, but Firing Line still gave him all he could handle. Dortmund also ran a strong race, setting the pace early and ultimately paying the price.

Behind that duo, Frosted showed it was just a step too slow with the top guns on Saturday, but he still has plenty of raw pace. And Mubtaahij was lost in the shuffle after a dreadful start, but the Irish-bred colt's stamina remains impressive.

Some of these horses won't be running in the Preakness Stakes and will arrive at the start of the Belmont Stakes with fresher legs than American Pharoah.

If the Kentucky Derby winner also manages to win the Preakness Stakes, he'll face a far longer track at Belmont Park. And as explained by FiveThirtyEight's Benjamin Morris, that has been a recipe for disaster in the past:

California Chrome is now the 13th horse to have won the first two races but failed to win the Belmont since Affirmed won the Triple Crown in 1978. Of the 13, one was scratched the day of the race, and eight lost to horses that didn’t even run in the Preakness.

Having a number of “fresh” horses in the Belmont field was common in the era leading up to Affirmed’s Triple Crown, though perhaps a little less so. But the extent that these horses have been dominating in the Belmont is just one aspect of a bigger issue.

[...] The main thing that separates the Belmont from the other two races is its length: At 1.5 miles (or 2.4 kilometers, or 12 furlongs), it’s over a quarter-mile longer than either the Derby or the Preakness. This distance has become increasingly rare in American horse-racing over time, to the point where almost all horses entering the Belmont these days have never raced it. Even highly experienced trainers may not have much experience with it.

Horses like American Pharoah are trained with the shorter distances in mind, and at the Belmont Stakes, the fresher legs of some of the competitors often dash all hopes of a Triple Crown win. A horse like Mubtaahij has more experience in longer races, for instance, and could skip the Preakness with an eye on Belmont.

That doesn't mean American Pharoah can't win the Triple Crown this year. He has the beautiful, effortless stride and raw pace that separate him from the field, and Espinoza will be keen on redemption after last year's disappointment with California Chrome.

But until we see which horses run the Preakness Stakes and how comfortably he survives there, fans should lower their expectations. Winning the Kentucky Derby is challenging enough as it is; there's no need to start adding pressure on the shoulders of the three-year-old colt right now.


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