Race Day is led to the finish line by jockey John Velazquez to win the $600,000 Oaklawn Handicap horse race at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., Saturday, April 11, 2015. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)
Danny Johnston
April 11, 2015

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. (AP) Nothing short of a dominating victory would have lived up to expectations for American Pharoah at the $1 million Arkansas Derby.

The heavy favorite met, if not exceeded, those hopes by pulling away in the stretch for an eight-length win on Saturday - setting the stage for the colt's position as the likely Kentucky Derby favorite next month.

Trained by Hall of Famer Bob Baffert and owned by Zayat Stables, American Pharoah went off as the heavy 1-9 favorite in the eight-horse field at Oaklawn Park.

The pre-race hype was fueled by a win at last month's Rebel Stakes by last year's 2-year-old champion, who has now won four straight races by a combined 22 1/4 lengths. Ridden by Victor Espinoza, American Pharoah - after settling into second for much of the race - left the field in his wake around the final turn and turned the home stretch into more of a coronation than competition.

''I've had a lot of nice horses,'' Baffert said. ''I think he's the most exceptional three-year-old.''

American Pharoah ran 1 1/8 miles in 1:48.2 in the Kentucky Derby prep race, finishing well ahead of runner-up Far Right and the rest of the field.

The colt paid $2.20, $2.20 and $2.10. Far Right returned $2.80 and $2.40, and Mr. Z paid $3.80 to show.

After a winter of less-than-ideal conditions - including a downpour during February's Southwest Stakes - the crowd of 67,500 enjoyed a mostly sunny day with temperatures in the 70s on Saturday.

With a fast track to match the conditions, Bridget's Big Luvy set the pace on the rail early with American Pharoah content to coast in second around the first turn and throughout the back stretch.

However, as the field made its way around the final turn, American Pharoah blew past the fading Bridget's Big Luvy - well ahead of any other possible challengers.

''He's always been something special from the start,'' Baffert said. ''It's in the way he works; he's just really an intelligent, gifted horse ... I'm glad he got it done, and he did it the right way.''

Baffert said American Pharoah will travel straight from Oaklawn Park to Churchill Downs to continue his preparation for what many hope is a run at the Triple Crown.

''He's a good horse,'' Baffert said. ''He needs to keep moving forward, and I don't need to get ahead of myself.''

American Pharoah began the day with his spot in next month's Kentucky Derby secure, having already earned 60 qualifying points - most coming from a 6 1/4-length win in the Rebel Stakes last month. The colt bobbled to the left out of the gate during that race before recovering for the win in off conditions, doing so despite battling a loose shoe.

He had no such troubles in yet another dominating win on Saturday.

American Pharoah garnered another 100 points for his win, while Far Right earned 40 for second and Mr. Z 20 for third.

''It wasn't that we needed the points, we needed the race,'' Baffert assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes said. ''He needed another race under his belt. He did enough today that we can pretty much cruise into Churchhill.''

American Pharoah earned $600,000 for the win, which was Baffert's first at the Arkansas Derby since Bodemeister in 2012. Far Right earned $200,000 for second and Mr. Z $100,000 for third.

Far Right won the Southwest Stakes and Smarty Jones, but he was unable to keep up with American Pharoah's final kick - despite a late charge to secure second.

''Well hope for maybe some different circumstances (in the Kentucky Derby),'' Far Right Trainer Ron Moquett said. ''And just like everybody else going there, we'll need some of the best luck. We certainly showed we belong.''

Also Saturday, Race Day led for much of the $600,000 Oaklawn Park Handicap to win by 3 3/4 lengths. The Todd Pletcher-trained colt finished the 1 1/8-mile race in 1:47.93. Carve was second, and Tapiture third.

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