It's hard to say American Pharoah has ever been an underdog. He came into the Kentucky Derby as a sizable favorite after dominant performances at the Arkansas Derby and Rebel Stakes. His Derby triumph pushed him to the forefront once more in Saturday's Preakness Stakes.
That said, it's impossible to say Pharoah hasn't overcome his share of obstacles.
The colt pushed through a torrential downpour and prevailed from the inside post Saturday, besting second-place Tale of Verve by seven lengths. After being put to the test by Firing Line at the Kentucky Derby, Pharoah returned to his dominant ways at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore. Pushed out of the gate by jockey Victor Espinoza, Pharoah took a lead on the field early that he never relinquished.
|2015 Preakness Stakes Results|
|1||1||American Pharoah||Victor Espinoza||Bob Baffert||----|
|2||5||Tale of Verve||Joel Rosario||Dallas Stewart||7|
|3||7||Divining Rod||Javier Castellano||Arnaud Delacour||8|
|4||2||Dortmund||Martin Garcia||Bob Baffert||15 1/2|
|5||3||Mr. Z||Corey Nakatani||D. Wayne Lukas||17 1/4|
|6||4||Danzig Moon||Julien Leparoux||Mark Casse||18 1/4|
|7||8||Firing Line||Gary Stevens||Simon Callaghan||45|
|8||6||Bodhisattva||Trevor McCarthy||Jose Corrales||48 1/4|
"Great horses do great things," trainer Bob Baffert told reporters, "and he showed that today. He's just an incredible horse."
While he was challenged at the race's midpoint, by the end it was clear there was no competition for Pharoah to be found. As the remainder of the field struggled to kick it into high gear amid the sloppy conditions, Pharoah dug in and raced as if it was a fast track.
“He just skips through everything,” Baffert said, per Richard Rosenblatt of the Orange County Register. “He’s that kind of horse. A wet track. A dry track. These horses can make excuses, but if they are ready to run and he fires, you win.”
Pharoah is the 14th horse to win the Preakness and Kentucky Derby since Affirmed's 1978 Triple Crown. Last year, California Chrome looked nearly as good through his first two races before faltering when arriving at the Belmont. Chrome never really competed and looked obviously gassed as he finished in fourth place.
“It’s tough up there,” Baffert said of the Belmont, per Joe Drape of the New York Times. “I’ve been there, and I don’t want to think about it for a couple of weeks. There’s going to be a whole new crew waiting for us. Let me enjoy this.”
Baffert is well-aware of the stakes. He's done this all three times before. In 1997, Baffert captured his first Kentucky Derby and Preakness with Silver Charm. He came up short. A year later, Real Quiet took the first two Triple Crown races again. For the second straight cycle, Baffert came up one spot short of completing it. War Emblem was the culprit in 2002 but finished eighth at the Belmont.
"I don't even want to think about it right now," Baffert said of the Triple Crown, per Mark Inabinett of AL.com. "It's tough. It's tough up there."
Of course, there is a reason so many have tried and failed to complete the Triple Crown. At 1.5 miles, the Belmont is by far the most daunting of the three races. The difference of a couple furloughs doesn't sound like much on paper, but it's critical for the horses.
Part of that is because these horses are working at a rate they never have previously. The Belmont will be their third race in a little over a month. Before the Triple Crown season, Pharoah regularly took three-week or month-long breaks.
In recent years, we've seen horses break down under the pressure. Big Brown didn't make it to the finish line in 2008 due to an injury. I'll Have Another three years ago didn't even enter the race. American Pharoah is by all accounts a bastion of health, but three weeks can change anything. One wrong step in training and we could go back to the drawing board.
Perhaps more importantly, Pharoah will be dealing with an extremely deep field. Todd Pletcher pulled all four of his horses from the Preakness for the express purpose of putting them in a strong position at the Belmont.
Materiality, Carpe Diem and Competitive Edge are all solid horses who could have tested Pharoah this weekend. Competitive Edge is undefeated in four career races, including an impressive run at the Pat Day Mile. Materiality was sixth at the Derby and has been pegged as Pletcher's best chance.
"It came down to we just felt two weeks was a little bit risky," Pletcher told the Associated Press' Richard Rosenblatt (via ABC News) . "We felt five weeks to the Belmont would be an advantage for him (Materiality). He's been at Belmont since two days after the Derby and has been training well."
Combine it all together and it might be fair to say American Pharoah will enter the Belmont as an underdog for the first time in his career. The historical connotations, Baffert's history of coming up short and the field will make things awfully interesting.
We'll have to see if Pharoah has one more run in him.
(Predictive) Odds of American Pharoah Winning Triple Crown: even