LOUISVILLE — The collective presence of champion American Pharoah and undefeated Dortmund turned Barn 33 on the Churchill Downs backstretch this week into a scene right out of Studio 54's heyday. Crowds several layers deep lined up around the wooden barriers that double as a velvet rope, keeping at bay the masses trying to get a photo, a glimpse at the undisputed glamour boys of the 141st Kentucky Derby.
They are the top betting choices on the morning line, with American Pharoah getting the nod for 5-2 favoritism with his stablemate deemed 3-1. Their own trainer, a Hall of Famer, is on record as saying he's not sure he can separate the two in terms of quality.
Jockey Martin Garcia won't publicly crack either on the debate over who is better, the reigning juvenile champion or his unblemished stablemate. It is his hands and seat, however, that have the greatest insight into the most debated topic leading up to the first leg of the Triple Crown.
Others can discuss the freakish talents of American Pharoah and Dortmund but only Garcia knows how it feels to be at the helm of both equine machines. Garcia has ridden Dortmund to all of his six career wins but is also the regular work rider for American Pharoah.
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Garcia has become one of trainer Bob Baffert's go-to riders over the years, guiding Lookin At Lucky to victory in the 2010 Preakness Stakes as well as being the regular rider for reigning Breeders' Cup Classic winner Bayern. That he is trusted with guiding both Dortmund and American Pharoah through their serious morning moves wouldn't even be a unique situation if it weren't for the fact that one of the colts he has helped develop now stands between him and his first Kentucky Derby victory.
"They both are really fast horses. They've all been winning super big races," said Garcia, who will be riding in his fourth Kentucky Derby. "When I work American Pharoah, it's just push-button, you can do anything with him, like you don't worry. You don't expect how fast he is going, he's just cruising. And he does everything so easily.
"Dortmund is a different horse. He's not push-button, it's kind of like whatever you ask is what he gives you. He doesn't like to lose, you guys can see. Dortmund just likes competition. American Pharoah, he just takes off."
Garcia rode American Pharoah when he made his career debut, a race that was also his only loss to date as he finished fifth going 61/2 furlongs at Del Mar last Aug. 9.
Circumstance prevented Garcia from staying on the colt as he was already committed to ride Holiday Camp in the Grade I Del Mar Futurity which American Pharoah and his current jockey Victor Espinoza ended up winning by 43/4 lengths.
He has been glued to the massive Dortmund, however, even before the son of Big Brown fully figured the game out. The two are unblemished together since winning a maiden race going 61/2 furlongs at Santa Anita Park on Nov. 2. After heart-stopping, head victories in the Grade I Los Alamitos Futurity and the Grade III Robert B. Lewis, Garcia feels Dortmund has since learned how to dominate, not just win.
"I think he is more mature and you can do anything with him," Garcia said. "A lot of horses when they have the pressure, they don't explode like when they don't have it. It looks like Dortmund loves to have that pressure."
Lest the hype overshadow them, there are 17 others entered that would like to ruin the Dortmund-American Pharoah debate by getting their own head down first Saturday.
Garcia himself has tried to upset the applecart with long-shot Derby mounts three times before, riding Conveyance to a 15th-place finish in 2010, Liaison to sixth in 2012 and Chitu to ninth last year. For the first time in his career, he heads into his sport's signature race with a real chance at victory — and the inside scoop on his biggest threat.
"Of course I want to win. You can win every race but the Derby is the traditional one to win," he said. "For my career it would be really important to me to win that race. A lot of doors will be open for me and ... it's like people look at you in a different way.
"American Pharoah has been winning so easily. The way he has been running just looks too impressive. They haven't asked him to run. But we'll see."
El Kabeir scratched
Zayat Stables' multiple graded stakes winner El Kabeir was scratched from the Kentucky Derby on Friday afternoon because of a potential foot abscess.
Earlier in the day, his connections stated that El Kabeir "took a few cautious steps today" and that a tender spot in the inside quarter of his left front foot had been discovered. Trainer John Terranova reportedly was working on the foot to see if the colt could get sound by Saturday morning, but shortly after 4 p.m. the Zayats announced he was officially declared from the race.
"He was still not 100 percent this afternoon. Horse always comes first," Justin Zayat, racing and stallion manager for Zayat Stables, posted on his Twitter account.
In a follow-up text to the Herald-Leader, Zayat added that the injury was day-to-day and that there was no time frame on how long El Kabeir would be sidelined.
"He is my favorite horse," he added. "Doesn't look to be serious but bad timing."
No horse will be added to replace El Kabeir since he was scratched after Friday's also-eligibles deadline. El Kabeir was slated to break from post position No. 7. With his defection, horses in posts 1-6 will be pushed to the outside to close the gap. Program numbers do not change.