Preakness: Easy for Derby winner American Pharoah, or not?
Now comes the easy part for American Pharoah - the Preakness Stakes.
At least that's the way Bob Baffert sizes up the next race on the Triple Crown trail.
The Hall of Fame trainer is 3-0 when his Kentucky Derby winner runs in the Preakness, and his fourth Derby winner American Pharoah should be the heavy favorite for next Saturday's race.
''To me, the Preakness is the easiest of the three legs,'' Baffert said this week, a few days after American Pharoah's hard-fought, one-length Derby victory over Firing Line. ''The Derby is the hardest. Once you get through there, you know your horses are in top form. It's a two-week turnaround. It's just a matter of getting there.''
And winning there.
Baffert's Derby-Preakness winners are Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet in 1998 and War Emblem in 2002. He owns two other Preakness wins - Point Given in 2001 and Lookin At Lucky in 2010. Both were beaten Derby favorites.
The Belmont Stakes three weeks after the Preakness? Well, that's another story: Baffert is 0 for 3 in attempts to end a Triple Crown drought that began after Affirmed swept the Derby, Preakness and Belmont in 1978.
''The Belmont,'' he said, ''you see that it wears on them.''
For sure. Silver Charm was passed in the stretch and beaten three-quarters of a length; Real Quiet lost by a nose in the closest of finishes; and War Emblem stumbled at the start and finished seventh.
''I'm not even thinking about it right now,'' the 62-year-old Baffert said. ''I just want to enjoy this win and go to the Preakness and really enjoy it. I'm older. It's much less pressure now.''
The 1 3/16-mile Preakness is shaping up as a tough test for American Pharoah on several fronts.
Firing Line and third-place Derby finisher Dortmund are out for payback. A few other Derby runners could show up, along with several new shooters, including one from the stable of Barbaro's owners.
''He's showing us positive vibes since the race,'' Firing Line's trainer Simon Callaghan said. ''He's a horse that just takes these races in stride. I think we have a really good chance of turning the tables.''
Baffert also trains Dortmund but has no qualms about the possibility his own horse could end his Derby winner's chance to go for the Triple Crown.
''I think he deserves another chance,'' the trainer said, adding that Dortmund might like the shorter Preakness distance (a 16th-of-a-mile shorter). ''In my barn, everyone gets an equal shot.''
Baffert planned to be at Churchill Downs on Sunday to see his two horses, and said Dortmund would run in the Preakness ''as long as he looks good Monday and Tuesday.'' After watching videos of his two colts jogging Thursday morning, the trainer said, ''Pharoah looks great. Dortmund looks good.''
And there's this: Could American Pharoah be a bit tuckered out after facing his first stiff challenge in the Derby?
The 3-year-old owned by Ahmed Zayat had won his previous four races by a combined 22 1/4 lengths, including an eight-length romp in the Arkansas Derby. At Churchill Downs, he struggled somewhat but remained third before jockey Victor Espinoza urged him on coming out of the far turn. He used his whip on the horse a reported 32 times in overtaking Dortmund and Firing Line.
Some have questioned whether Espinoza's use of the whip was excessive. Baffert said the veteran rider was trying to keep American Pharoah focused.
''He was flagging him and hitting him, but he hits him on the saddle towel, and he doesn't really hit that hard,'' Baffert said during a national conference call this week. ''It was to keep him busy. The horse wasn't responding on the turn for home.''
Others being considered for the Preakness include Derby runners Danzig Moon, Materiality, Carpe Diem and Mr. Z; set to run is Divining Rod; and possibles include Competitive Edge, Stanford, Tale of Verve, Grand Bill and Bodhisattva.
Divining Rod is owned by Gretchen and Roy Jackson, who also owned Barbaro. Nine years ago, millions looked on in horror as the 2006 Derby winner shattered a leg at the start of the Preakness and was vanned off the track in a horse ambulance. Eight months later, he was euthanized.
Trainer Arnaud Delacour said Divining Rod, winner of the Lexington Stakes, is ready to go.
''It's a tough bunch of horses,'' he said. ''The only thing is: I think everybody ran pretty hard, so you never know how they are going to come back in two weeks.''
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