American Pharoah and jockey Victor Espinoza won the 140th running of the Preakness Stakes in a commanding performance Saturday.
Three things we learned from the 2015 Preakness Stakes:
1. That was very, very impressive
Inside post? No problem. Rainstorm? Who cares? Quicker pace? Not an issue.
Victor Espinoza had to hustle American Pharoah out of the starting gate to clear traffic, and then he was able to settle the colt down into a comfortable gallop. The jockey slowed so much, in fact, that he seemed to come back to the field a bit entering the far turn. But that was the only time he and American Pharoah ever seemed in danger of losing this race. On the turn for home, with jockey Martin Garcia using the whip on Dortmund, American Pharoah galloped clear of the field under nothing more than a hand ride from Espinoza. Pharoah ran off to win by seven lengths.
There were no serious challenges to American Pharoah in this race. Firing Line, the runner-up in the Kentucky Derby, stumbled coming out of the gate and couldn’t clear rivals going into the first turn. He didn’t like the wide trip that resulted from that, and he didn’t like the wet track. Races in the slop are frequently won by a horse on the lead for the simple reason that the horses running behind don’t like taking mud in their faces. You have to think that some of that was going on with Firing Line on Saturday. He was done by far turn.
Bob Baffert, who trains American Pharoah, is an old hand at Triple Crown races. He’s won 11 of them, and this will be the fourth time he will head to New York with a chance at ending racing’s 37-year Triple Crown drought. Baffert has long contended that the horse who wins the Kentucky Derby should win the Preakness because of the simple fact that the horse is still the best. Two weeks shouldn’t change that. It was certainly the case on Saturday.
2. Victor Espinoza is going to New York with something to prove
This is the third time that Victor Espinoza has swept the first two races of the Triple Crown. That means that the jockey has won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness three times apiece. But he has never won a Belmont. In 2002, he and the front-running War Emblem stumbled coming out of the starting gate and never got into the race. Last year, California Chrome just wasn’t good enough. What’s going to happen at Belmont in three weeks? Nobody knows, but Espinoza will have a lot say about it.
Espinoza is one of the hottest jockeys in North America right now. He’s third on the earnings list, with more than $5 million in purses. But going into last year’s Belmont atop California Chrome, the rider had won just two of 67 starts at Belmont Park. It’s hard to pin the two failed Triple Crowns on Espinoza, but his record at the track speaks for itself.
I have seen eight previous Triple Crown tries at Belmont, and all eight have ended in crushing disappointment. I feel comfortable, therefore, advising everybody not to get their hopes up that American Pharoah will be the horse to finally pull off the three-race sweep. He was impressive winning the Kentucky Derby but he was not dominant. He was dominant winning the Preakness, but it was in the slop and on the lead—two things that, for whatever reason, often go together. Take it with a grain of salt.
That said, it will be hard to resist the urge to hype the colt. He’s won the two biggest races of the year in his division, and his division is awfully good. Unlike in previous years, the ranks of North American 3-year-olds have not been thinned by injury and accident. American Pharoah is the real deal, but there are going to be several fresh horses looking to knock him off in the Belmont. Keep an eye on trainer Todd Pletcher, who is the best in the sport. He skipped the Preakness to point his horses toward the Belmont Stakes on June 6.
Pletcher had two horses in the Derby. Carpe Diem finished 10th, while the lightly raced Materiality finished sixth. We could see both of those colts take on American Pharoah in three weeks. Belmont is Pletcher’s home base, and he’s won the Belmont Stakes twice, with Rags to Riches in 2007, and Palace Malice in ’13.
If American Pharoah is to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978, he’s going to have to defeat whoever Pletcher sends out against him. That will certainly be doable, but it won’t be easy.