LOUISVILLE — Nobody wants to be the person who cut Michael Jordan from his high school varsity basketball team. Nobody wants to be any of the many people who elected not to pick Tom Brady until the sixth round of the 2000 NFL Draft. Nobody wants to be the contrarian fool who stared straight into the face of future greatness, and looked elsewhere, only to find himself later ridiculed for failing to recognize the obvious and herald it in full throat. But heaven help me, this week I might be that person. I am not picking American Pharoah to win the 141st running of he Kentucky Derby; I am picking Dortmund, his stablemate in trainer Bob Baffert’s barn.
It’s possible that early Saturday evening American Pharoah will prove himself worthy of the yearning hosannas heaped upon him by racing fans who remain desperate in their search for transcendence (and preferably, a Triple Crown winner). He is a stunning equine athlete, unbeaten in four consecutive races since an undisciplined debut last summer in California; this spring he effortlessly won two Derby prep races at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas by a combined 14¼ lengths. Here in Kentucky he glided so efficiently over the Churchill Downs oval in his one serious workout that clockers were stunned at how fast he ran. There’s little question he has immense talent, and if he wins the Derby impressively I will shamelessly jump on his bandwagon with both feet and being comparing him to great thoroughbreds of the past. But not yet.
There are three reasons:
1. American Pharoah has not been tested. I’m willing to toss his first race, a six-furlong sprint last Aug. 9 at Del Mar in which Pharoah never relaxed, either before or during the race, and finished fifth. In the first three of his four dominant victories since that defeat, he took an easy lead and galloped the field into submission on pure, front-running talent. In the Arkansas Derby on April 11, tucked in behind a sprinting long shot before cruising to the front on the far turn and winning easily. It was useful to see that Pharoah didn’t unequivocally need the lead, but that exercise was scarcely indicative of what he will see on Saturday. He’s still mostly unchallenged, like a quarterback who has thrown beautiful, accurate spirals, but only in drills, with no pass rush.
2. This is one of the strongest crops of spring 3-year-old racehorses in many years. Much like with the NFL draft or college recruiting classes, it’s impossible to evaluate the class until their careers are finished in a year or two or three. But at this point, there are more than half a dozen Derby starters who have shown some combination of speed, toughness and consistency. Coronations work best when the competition is weak, especially in a 20-horse rodeo like the Derby.
3. Pharoah drew the number 17 post position (he originally drew number 18, but was shuffled inside to 17 when Stanford scratched on Thursday afternoon). His owner, the exuberant Ahmed Zayat—who has three times finished second in the Derby, and who in 2010 had to scratch prohibitive favorite Eskendereya a week before post time—said he was “ecstatic” with that draw. But when American Pharoah drew the 18 hole, there were only nine positions left in the random draw, and three of them were the unfavorable 1, 2 and 3 spots. “My stomach was tied up on knots,” said Pharoah’s jockey, Victor Espinoza, of watching the draw. The number 17 post is fine. Big Brown won from number 20 in ’08, and four years later I’ll Have Another won from number 19. Espinoza said, “I can control the race from there.” But it will take some work to angle 17 paths across the dirt before the field barrels into the first turn. Zayat was “ecstatic” over getting the 17 hole at least partly because he was relieved to have avoided the three deadly inside spots.
(Two of those inside spots went to multiple Eclipse Award-winning trainer Todd Pletcher. His pair of Carpe Diem and Materiality drew posts 2 and 3, respectively, severely compromising their chances at victory, and removing all strategic decision-making. They will have to go out fast and hope for the best.)
Again, American Pharoah might be so gifted that none of these things matter. He might be able to give the field a furlong head start and still win the Derby. For now, I’m going to make him prove it and get behind him afterward.
It’s an unusual year in that most of the horses that appear to be top contenders would prefer to run on or near the lead. That doesn’t guarantee a sizzling pace. It could result in exactly the opposite, as half a dozen contenders bunch up near the front and jockeys play a chess game. (The only Derby horse who seemed to possess early speed while lacking the class and stamina to stay the distance was the scratched Stanford.) Hence, expect that as the field runs past the grandstand for the first time, Carpe Diem (who will be wearing saddlecloth number 2), Materiality (3), Dortmund (8), Firing Line (10), American Pharoah (18) and Upstart (19), and possibly others, will all be trying to secure a position near the front, while also trying not get hung disadvantageously wide around the clubhouse turn and being forced to run significant extra distance.
This should result in a fiercely competitive early race. In this scenario, I’m removing Carpe Diem and Materiality from consideration. It’s a cattle drive on the inside in the Derby; Carpe Diem has never been in a real fight and Materiality has run only three races (and is trying to become the first horse who didn’t race as a 2-year-old to win the Derby since Apollo in 1882).
Dortmund, meanwhile, is every bit as tested as American Pharoah is not. In Dortmund’s maiden start last November at Santa Anita, he fell to sixth place in a 6½-furlong sprint and then gobbled up the leaders in a few massive strides, nearly running up their backs. He didn’t score a wire-to-wire victory until his fifth career start (the March 7 San Felipe Stakes), and twice he has won stretch duels with Firing Line, including a pulsating fight in the Feb. 7 Robert B. Lewis Stakes, during which Firing Line went a full length in front before Dortmund fought back along the rail to win.
Veteran Gary Stevens rides Firing Line, and at age 52 will be riding in the Derby with an artificial knee. “I learned something about my horse, but I also learned something about Dortmund in the Bob Lewis,” says Stevens. “Dortmund reminded me of [1997 Derby winner] Silver Charm. You don’t want to get in a dogfight with him. If [another horse] looked Silver Charm in the eye, he liked it. The tighter I made it on Dortmund, the more he liked it. Those horses are rare.”
Dortmund is a huge horse, 17 hands tall. (The same as the towering champion mare Zenyatta.) There’s thinking among handicappers that he is too big to adjust as the Derby chaotically unfolds. Baffert disagrees vehemently. “He’s quick, he’s an athlete,” the trainer says. “And he’s got an incredible stride.” Some experts have compared Dortmund to Point Given, who was also huge, but Baffert says, “[Point Given] took a while to get going. That’s not Dortmund.”
Of course, if you’re going to pick Dortmund, you’ve got to seriously consider Firing Line, who has twice lost to him by a head. Firing Line escaped his rival by going to New Mexico, and on March 22 won the Sunland Park Derby by 14¼ lengths, galloping. “It’s not that we were afraid of losing to Dortmund again,” says Firing Line’s trainer, Simon Callaghan. “We knew if we raced each again, it would be a very tough race, and we didn’t feel that we needed another tough race like that.”
On Saturday, expect American Pharoah to challenge early, but to yield eventually to Dortmund, while Stevens stalks with Firing Line and tries to position himself away from Dortmund for a finishing run. “I prefer to stay away from him when the battle starts,” says Stevens.
I expect two others to join the fight in the stretch: Upstart, who won the Holy Bull and Fountain of Youth in Florida before finishing second to Materiality in the Florida Derby; and Frosted, who thundered home to a convincing win in the Wood Memorial in New York on April 5. Upstart, the first Derby starter for 77-year-old owner Ralph Evans in 48 years in the game, has never finished worse than third and has always been in the mix in his seven lifetime starts. Frosted was similarly consistent until he finished a surprising and unthreatening fourth in the Florida Derby. After the race, trainer Kiaran McLaughlin arranged for a minor surgical procedure on Frosted’s throat, changed jockeys (from Irad Ortiz to Joel Rosario) and moved the colt to New York. Both Upstart and Frosted are dangerous.
In the end, I expect Dortmund to hold off Firing Line again and give Baffert his fourth Derby victory (and first since 2002) and California-based horses their third win in four years. But if American Pharoah wins, count me in for the Preakness.