LOUISVILLE — It is the nature of the beast in sports to build up that which we want to be great to titanic, unapproachable proportions.
The field for the 141st Kentucky Derby fed that monster like it was at a buffet. It was the best assemblage of sophomore runners at least since 2007, some were saying ever. At the head of the procession were a pair of Bob Baffert-trained colts with dueling brilliance who everyone just wanted to see hook up, fair shot for all, and settle the question of which was best.
The thing about such hype is it so rarely delivers on what it promises. After months of being touted as a horse more exceptional than even the special ones, champion American Pharoah ran right upon two worthy rivals and proved all the declarations of his superiority were truth.
The record crowd of 170,513 that showed up at Churchill Downs on Saturday got exactly what was billed to them in pretty much perfect fashion. Zayat Stables' homebred American Pharoah, he of the effortless motion and freakish speed, surged up three wide around the final turn and fought past Firing Line to his inside and Dortmund on the rail to capture the $2 million Kentucky Derby by a length.
On a day that saw a royal offspring come into the world across the ocean, the first leg of the Triple Crown doubled as a coronation. At every step of his development, those around American Pharoah said he seemed to breathe different air than the rest.
His three starts as a 2-year-old were enough to crown him juvenile champion even when injury kept him out of the Breeders' Cup. In winning his last four starts by a combined 221/4 lengths, he displayed so much natural ability that the betting public never wavered in making him the 5-2 favorite over a Derby field that included his unbeaten Grade I-winning stablemate Dortmund — a 17-plus hand specimen who would have been crowned in his own right had his big chestnut stride been able to hold on about a furlong longer in Saturday's 11/4-mile test.
Instead, the Zayat family who had three times watched horses they owned finish second in the Derby wept gleefully at their first triumph. Jockey Victor Espinoza, who piloted California Chrome to victory last year, celebrated his third career Derby win while the normally quick-with-a-quip Baffert was nothing but humbled at becoming the third trainer with at least four Derby wins.
"I know a lot of people are hoping — they put their hat on something big like this, a horse — like ... there's a certain aura about him," Baffert said of American Pharoah. "All week long, this superhorse, what are we going to see? I read that, and I don't really like that. Now it's like you can say all you want about that. We got the Derby.
"He's always shown he's different. And today we saw it. What he's been through, what he's accomplished ... he is a dream horse to train."
Since coming back from what was termed a foot injury and possible tweaked suspensory, American Pharoah has done his part to make life as easy for those around him as his stride.
His season debut in the Grade II Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park on March 14 marked his first outing since winning the Grade I FrontRunner at Santa Anita last September. It was basically a 11⁄16-mile paid workout as the son of Pioneerof the Nile won gate-to-wire without a deep breath by 61/4 lengths.
In the Grade I Arkansas Derby, the bay colt showed he could rate if needed, sitting just off the early pacesetter before crushing the field by 8 lengths with his ears up the whole way. If there was a knock he owned heading into the Derby, it's that no one knew how he would respond if he actually had to get on his belly and fight.
"I've always felt that, if this horse remains sound, he would win the Derby," said Ahmed Zayat, who also bred and campaigned Pioneerof the Nile, their first Grade I winner and runner-up in the 2009 Derby. "What gave me a lot of confidence is that particular horse. American Pharoah is very different from all the horses I had. Day one, we felt that he had brilliance to him."
Turns out, American Pharoah can battle as well as he can crush.
When the 18-horse Derby field sprung forth, Martin Garcia hustled Dortmund to the front while Espinoza masterfully was able to get American Pharoah out of post No. 17 around the masses and into a clear outside path just off his stablemate and Firing Line around the first turn.
The three remained in a line as Dortmund went in :23.24 and :47.34 with Firing Line at his hip. When Firing Line took over coming off the final turn, Espinoza sent American Pharoah three wide and went to the left-handed whip as Firing Line stubbornly hung in until late stretch.
"Turning for home, I know I got it, just a matter of time," Espinoza said. "It's all about confidence. You know, I went into this race with so much confidence. I knew I came with a special horse."
Firing Line, who had twice been beaten a head by Dortmund previously, bested that nemesis for second, but couldn't topple his comrade.
"The horse ran incredible," trainer Simon Callaghan said of Firing Line. "What can I say, he's done everything right but win."
Final time for the 11/4 miles was 2:03.02 over a fast track.
With Dortmund on the lead and American Pharoah stalking, Baffert said he thought it was his Derby to lose after the first turn.
He wasn't wrong, either about the outcome or in his assessment of the one who would be the new 3-year-old king.
"They sent me this horse and I thought ... don't mess it up," Baffert said. "I knew we were coming in with a really special horse."