Three things we learned from the 2015 Kentucky Derby:
1. The best horse won
Everything went just the way the big horses wanted it to in this race. Dortmund got an easy lead and set a moderate pace. The Derby was his for the taking at the top of the stretch. His old rival, Firing Line, and his stablemate, American Pharoah, were in good striking position, as both had gotten clean trips while stalking him around the Churchill Downs oval. But things suddenly looked a little hinky around the turn for home. Firing Line’s jockey, 52-year-old Gary Stevens, had talked before the Derby about how he didn’t want to be too close to Dortmund if the race came down to a stretch duel—he had lost two close prep races earlier in the year to the big colt—and he swung his horse wide around the turn for home. The move forced American Pharoah into the middle of the track. Everything was set up for Dortmund to gallop home with an easy victory.
But that’s not what happened. American Pharoah proved his class. He was behind by two lengths entering the top of the stretch, but he ran steadily into the lead over the last quarter-mile and finished more than a length in front of the always-game Firing Line and well in front of third-place Dortmund. Stevens had timed Firing Line’s run perfectly, but American Pharoah and jockey Victor Espinoza were simply too good.
It seems every year that pace makes this race. To some extent, that was true Saturday, but that isn’t the whole story. If Saturday was all about pace and ideal trips, Dortmund probably would have snipped the wire first. That’s not how it happened. American Pharoah ran two very good horses down to win the Run for the Roses. The best horse won. No doubt.
2. Bob Baffert is back
A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since Bob Baffert last won a Kentucky Derby (2002 with War Emblem). That day, War Emblem, who won at odds of 12–1, had gotten loose on the lead and won a wide-open Derby in front-running fashion. I was there and I still remember how tickled the trainer was that he had fooled everybody so badly.
It’s not like Baffert has disappeared since he last won the Derby. He’s won Breeders’ Cup and Triple Crown races. But he’s also been through a divorce, a second marriage and the birth of a young son. He suffered a major heart attack a few years ago and needed surgery to save his life. Baffert was always a funny guy around the barns, cracking wise and glad-handing visitors. That hasn’t changed. But he also seems to have gained some perspective. It’s a nice change.
I couldn’t help thinking about War Emblem as I watched Dortmund circle the Churchill Downs oval through modest fractions of 23.24, 47.34 and 1:11.29. Baffert seemed to have done it again. There was no reason to think that Dortmund wouldn’t be able to hold off Firing Line in the stretch; he’d done so twice before. But the wild card was American Pharoah, a supremely talented colt who had also cleared the field after the first quarter-mile and gotten a clean trip. This time, Baffert won the Derby with the stalker, not the leader, though Dortmund still earned third-place money. Not too shabby. He made a lot of money for his owners and for himself Saturday.
3. Triple Crown hype is going to crank up in a big way
Don’t get me wrong, Triple Crown hype intensifies every year after the Derby. It’s unavoidable. But rarely is the race won by the favorite. The stretch at Churchill Downs is where Kentucky Derby favorites almost always seem to go down to defeat. But this year’s Derby had an especially deep field, and the finish came down to a stretch duel among three of the best 3-year-olds in the world. That American Pharoah came out the winner only validates all the accolades that have been thrown at him in the previous weeks. He’s got the speed, he’s got the trainer and he’s got the pedigree—he was sired by the talented Pioneerof the Nile, a son of 2003 Belmont champion Empire Maker—to do it all.
The odds are against a colt winning the Triple Crown. Of course they are. It’s only been done 11 times since Sir Barton won the first one in 1919. And if there’s anything we’ve learned from the bad beats the sport of horse racing has suffered since Affirmed last completed the Derby-Preakness-Belmont sweep in 1978, it’s that it’s going to take a special horse to win another Triple Crown.
Is American Pharoah that horse? Maybe. And that’s good enough for now. On to the Preakness on May 16.