BALTIMORE — Racing arrives again and ever long past due, at the cusp of history, in a familiar place with a familiar narrative. A racehorse has again won the first two legs of the Triple Crown and again the broader world beyond its tidy borders will put aside other avocations for a few minutes, three weeks from now on the first Saturday in June, and watch to see if, at long last, one of the most famous droughts in sports will be brought to a merciful end. We have been here before and before and before and the story is as recognizable as our reflections in the morning mirror. We no longer trust it, but we surely know what it looks like. Yet there was little else about what transpired late Saturday afternoon at crumbling Pimlico Race Course that was commonplace or mundane.
When it was finished, a 3-year-old bay colt named American Pharoah had galloped through Pimlico’s sloppy homestretch seven lengths clear of the field and beneath the wire to win the 140th running of the Preakness. He had, in almost every tangible way, fulfilled the outsized expectations that preceded his grinding, one-length victory two weeks ago in the Kentucky Derby, a performance that was oddly unsatisfying and was awarded little in the way of style points by a demanding racing cognoscente. “He didn’t really bring his A-game in the Kentucky Derby,” said winning trainer Bob Baffert. “He brought his A-game today.”
When it was finished, Dortmund and Firing Line, who had battled American Pharoah to the finish in the Derby, were fourth and seventh, beaten by 15½ and 46 lengths, respectively, margins that showcased Pharoah’s dominance and talent. “American Pharoah is special,” said Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, whose Mr. Z finished a soundly beaten fifth after chasing American Pharoah early in the race. “I think this could be the year.” (Of course, we have heard that before).
And when it was finished, some familiar facts bubbled straight to the surface. Eleven horses have won the Triple Crown, but none since Affirmed in 1978. Thirteen have won the Derby and the Preakness and 12 failed in New York (In 2012, I’ll Have Another was scratched on the eve of the Belmont). It is a stubborn streak that disproportionately haunts the sport.
Not long after the race, Pimlico public relations staffers distributed a list of horses who did not run in the Preakness, but who might take a shot at spoiling the Triple Crown in the June 6 Belmont Stakes. Among them are three trained by Eclipse Award-winning trainer Todd Pletcher, including Derby sixth-place finisher Materiality, who many experts felt would be a Preakness threat but whom Pletcher opted not to enter. The presence of multiple fresh horses preparing to ambush American Pharoah in New York ensures that media and fans will revisit the post-race comments made by California Chrome minority owner Steve Coburn after Chrome was beaten by Tonalist—who skipped the first two legs of the Triple Crown—in last year’s Belmont. Coburn called accused Tonalists’s connections of taking “the coward’s way out,” and his comments got considerable run. He should expect his cell phone to ring often in the next three weeks.
Baffert will come to the Belmont with a chance at the Triple Crown for the fourth time in 19 years. He fell short with Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet in ’98 and War Emblem in 2002, and holds the achievement in high regard. “It’s gonna be tough,” Baffert said. “I know they’re sharpening their knives. Two weeks [after the Preakness], that’s when you see how the Triple Crown [chase] is affecting them.”
Owner Ahmed Zayat was more succinct: “Bring it on.”
But before of all of that, before the stretch run and before jockey Victor Espinoza (who also rode California Chrome) raised his whip in the air (he hit Pharoah with it 32 times in the Derby, but not at all in the Preakness), before Pharoah’s entourage dragged themselves across a muddy racetrack to a giddy, rain-soaked and televised trophy presentation in the infield, there was a half-hour of prelude that was as surreal as any that you will ever see at a racetrack.
At 5:45 p.m., Baffert walked behind Pharoah along the bark-chip path that connects the Pimlico stables to the racetrack. A dark gray sky hung overhead and weather radar showed nasty thunderstorms approaching. Baffert held the hand of his 10-year-old son, Bode, and bantered as he walked. Routinely before races, veterinarians check the lip tattoos on entered horses, to make sure that a sneaky trainer hasn’t substituted another horse. As he recounted Pharoah’s inspection, Baffert said, “Like I’ve got a better one than him.”
Baffert walked behind Pharoah past the grandstand toward the small, indoor saddling paddock. Fans shouted at him and chanted his name. A few booed. Baffert recalled that in 1997, when he made the same walk with his young son, Forest, one fan had held up a sign that read, NOT TODAY, BOB. “My son got really upset,” said Baffert. At 5:52, just as Pharoah, Baffert and Bode turned into the indoor paddock, it began to sprinkle. Pharoah took at least two dozen turns around the ring, more than any of the other seven starters. Baffert walked outside across the dirt track to the Pimlico turf course and legged Espinoza up onto Pharoah, a Preakness tradition.
It had already been a trying day at the decaying track known as Old Hilltop. Much of Pimlico’s water supply had been choked off midafternoon (track officials said that this had been caused by a water pipe break two miles from the track). Humidity had been rising throughout the day, soaking a record crowd of 131,680 spectators, many of them partying on the infield. At 6:08 p.m., just as the post parade began, the skies unleashed a violent thunderstorm. Sheets of rain blew sideways across the track and lightning illuminated the sky.
Baffert, his wife, Jill, and Bode ran back across the dirt track into the covered saddling paddock to watch the race on a small NBC monitor. American Pharoah had drawn the number 1 post position, nearest the inside rail, and when NBC showed a shot of a virtual river flowing along the rail, Jill Baffert said, “Oh my God, oh my God. He’s going to have to run through a river. It’s not fair. It’s not fair.” Over her right shoulder, Bob Baffert made a joke to cut the tension. “His earplugs are going to be soaked.” (American Pharoah wears pom-pom earplugs to help keep him focused.)
There was a sense of foreboding in the area. Might Pimlico delay the start of the race to let the storm pass, for the safety of the horses and the jockeys? Pimlico general manager Sal Sinatra said, “The horses were saddled and with 10 minutes to post, we didn’t want to bring the horses to the enclosed paddock for fear it might unsettle some of them. We were looking at the weather and nothing indicated the conditions would deteriorate any further.”
[daily_cut]On the track, Espinoza, “The first thing I thought of was how much water I had in my boots. They were flooded.”
The intensity of the rain lessened slightly as the horses were loaded into the starting gate. Espinoza went in first. Baffert had said all week that the break from the gate would be key, and Pharoah did not break sharply. Espinoza threw his hands forward with the reins, urging Pharoah past Dortmund (who was in the number 2 spot) and into the lead. The nifty move was a tribute to Pharoah’s talent and the jockey’s uncommon cool,
This action forced Pharoah to run a quick first quarter, 22.90 seconds. But then he slowed to 23.59 for the second quarter, preserving his energy. Handicappers had thought that jockey Gary Stevens on Derby runner-up Firing Line, would pressure American Pharoah from the outside (reversing their Derby roles). But Firing Line stumbled out of the gate. “That was our race,” said Stevens.
American Pharoah was the only horse in the Preakness field who had previously run on a sloppy track. He clearly relishes it, and galloped along in the lead. Watching the monitor, Baffert said, “He’s gonna run away from those horses." That is exactly what he did, with minimal urging from Espinoza. His winning time of 1:58.46 is slowest Preakness since 1950, but that seems like a statistical outlier. Pharoah had been running fast early. Clearly the track was made slow by the rain. The time seems insignificant.
When Pharoah crossed the line, Baffert said, “What a horse, what a horse. It takes a really good horse to do what he did today.” Jill Baffert jumped into her husband’s arms. Last summer when Baffert told his wife that American Pharoah was his stable’s best 2-year-old before the colt finished fifth in his first start, Jill said, “If that’s our best, it’s going to be a long year.” Now Baffert said to his wife, “That’s a great horse, honey.”
Minutes later, assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes ran in from the dying rainfall, soaked to his bones. He reached his right hand out to Baffert and said, “One more.”
Baffert smiled back and said, “One more.”