All week long, American Pharoah received the hype of a horse destined for greatness. Comparisons to luminaries within horse racing and outside became the norm, to the point where undefeated Dortmund was cast in the shadow of his own stable.
On Saturday, Pharoah proved worth every piece of adulation.
The ascending colt kicked it into high gear on the final stretch, outlasting Firing Squad and Dortmund to take the 141st Kentucky Derby. Starting out in the No. 16 post, Pharoah bided his time early as Dortmund paced the field, with Victor Espinoza putting him on the outside.
The event quickly turned into a three-horse race by the midpoint, and Espinoza kicked Pharoah into high gear after the final turn as Firing Squad and Dortmund both failed to catch up.
|2015 Kentucky Derby Results|
|1||18||American Pharoah||Victor Espinoza||Bob Baffert||-----|
|2||10||Firing Line||Gary Stevens||Simon Callaghan||1|
|3||8||Dortmund||Martin Garcia||Bob Baffert||3|
|4||15||Frosted||Joel Rosario||Kiaran McLaughlin||3 1/4|
|5||5||Danzig Moon||Julien Leparoux||Mark Casse||6 1/2|
|6||3||Materiality||Javier Castellano||Todd Pletcher||7 3/4|
|7||14||Keen Ice||Kent Desormeaux||Dale Romans||8 3/4|
|8||6||Mubtaahij||Christophe Soumillon||Mike de Kock||9 1/2|
|9||13||Itsaknockout||Luis Saez||Todd Pletcher||10 1/4|
|10||2||Carpe Diem||John Velazquez||Todd Pletcher||11|
|11||21||Frammento||Corey Nakatani||Nick Zito||12|
|12||9||Bolo||Rafael Bejarano||Carla Gaines||12 3/4|
|13||17||Mr. Z||Ramon Vazquez||D. Wayne Lukas||15 1/2|
|14||1||Ocho Ocho Ocho||Elvis Trujillo||Jim Cassidy||15 1/2|
|15||20||Far Right||Mike Smith||Ron Moquett||15 3/4|
|16||16||War Story||Joe Talamo||Tom Amoss||19 1/4|
|17||4||Tencendur||Manny Franco||George Weaver||35|
|18||19||Upstart||Jose Ortiz||Rick Violette Jr.||60 1/2|
|7||El Kabeir||Calvin Borel||John Terranova||SCR|
|11||Stanford||Florent Geroux||Todd Pletcher||SCR|
|12||International Star||Miguel Mena||Michael Maker||SCR|
The favorite listed on Odds Shark took down the 9-1 underdog Firing Line by one length. While not as historically impressive as his previous wins, it's undoubtedly more than enough to etch his place in history.
“I’m speechless,” owner Ahmed Zayat said, per The Herald-Leader. “This is one special horse. I was very reluctant to hype him, but the horse does the talking.”
American Pharoah's win is the second in a row for Espinoza, who successfully rode California Chrome to triumphs at the Derby and Belmont Stakes last year. It's also the fourth overall for trainer Bob Baffert and his first since 2002.
"This American Pharoah, he's just something. (He) keeps bringing it. He makes a trainer really look good," Baffert said, per Steve Almasy of CNN. "Thank God for great horses."
Of course, from the moment Pharoah crossed the finish line, the conversation about his legacy changes. For the moment, he's not considered a Kentucky Derby winner. He's instead been installed as horse racing's next great hope for a Triple Crown.
The statistics are so well-ingrained in the culture they're like second nature. Horse racing has not seen a Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978. California Chrome last year was the 13th horse since Affirmed to take the first two but not the third. Not since Smarty Jones in 2004 has there been a horse that's even gotten particularly close in its effort.
"The fact that there have been a lot of close calls almost adds to the intrigue," said Steve Cauthen, who jockeyed Affirmed in 1978, per Gary Mihoces of USA Today. "And you realize how difficult it is to have a horse that good and that can overcome things that every Triple Crown winner has to overcome to get it pulled off."
Despite the difficulty, Pharoah appears to have the pedigree to pull it off. His triumphs on the biggest stage before Saturday have been downright dominant. He won by eight lengths at the Arkansas Derby, the Rebel Stakes by 6 ½ and has five straight triumphs overall. It's not too often you hear a horse compared to the University of Kentucky basketball team and Michael Jordan.
"I have been doing this for 35 years and he might be the best horse I've ever seen," said private clocker and bloodstock agent Gary Young, per Dick Jerardi of Philly.com. "He's simply like Michael Jordan and stays in the air like he did in his rookie year. He stays in the air longer than any horse, and you get the feeling that there's not one gear left, but he may have two, three or four gears."
The Preakness, which gets underway two weeks from Saturday in Baltimore, feels like a mortal lock at this point. A good chunk of competitors from the Kentucky Derby won't make the trip; it's become a custom for trainers to hold out their horses for the second Triple Crown leg to make them fresher to play spoiler at the Belmont.
After defeating 17 other horses at Churchill Downs, it'd be a surprise to see Pharoah have to contend with more than a dozen in a couple weeks.
Concern, however, begins at the Belmont. The New York-based track has long been seen as the most tortuous of the three legs. It's 12 furlongs compared to the 10 of Kentucky and 9 of the Preakness. It's also the third race within a five-week span, a true test of endurance that separates the good from the historically great.
American Pharoah's shortest distance between races before the Triple Crown season has been 21 days. His schedule has been meticulously carved out like most thoroughbreds', giving them enough race experience to impress but not enough to risk injury.
Perhaps more than anything, health will be the biggest key for Pharoah's Triple Crown run. Two of the last three horses to take the Preakness and Derby have failed to cross the finish line. Big Brown suffered a did-not-finish after being injured in 2008, and I'll Have Another pulled out of the third race altogether.
It'll also be interesting to see how the owners for Dortmund and Firing Line choose to handle their horses. Neither looked all that much different from a talent perspective until the end. Sit them out while Pharoah goes and contends with the Preakness field, and that gap may close entirely.
Point being: Even if Pharoah's as great as we all think, he's going to have a difficult time making history.
(Predictive) Odds of American Pharoah Winning Triple Crown: 3-1
Follow Tyler Conway (@tylerconway22) on Twitter.