LOUISVILLE — Trainer Bob Baffert held the lead shank of the 2015 Kentucky Derby winner Sunday morning, pulling him out of his Churchill Downs barn to showcase him, even letting several people just beyond the barriers pet and feed the brilliant colt with the superstar disposition.
"He know he's a celebrity now," Baffert said of newly-minted classic winner American Pharoah.
Zayat Stables' homebred colt certainly is one who brought the equine house down Saturday evening with his one-length triumph over Firing Line in the first leg of the Triple Crown. If it is possible, champion American Pharoah will be under an even brighter spotlight as he prepares for an expected rematch between the top three Derby finishers in the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course on May 16.
All 18 participants in the 141st Kentucky Derby were reported by their connections to have emerged in good order, with American Pharoah looking every bit the conquering hero as he sweetly tolerated the morning rush of fanfare.
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Barring setbacks, the son of Pioneerof the Nile is slated to stay at Churchill along with stablemate Dortmund — who finished third in the Derby after setting the early fractions — for the next week before shipping out to Baltimore. While Baffert said he would make a final decision on Dortmund's status after talking with owner Kaleem Shah, he said didn't "see any reason why not" to race the previously unbeaten son of Big Brown.
"We'll know next week when we train them," said Baffert, who went on to reveal that Dortmund almost didn't make the trip to Louisville after showing symptoms of colic following his final work at Santa Anita Park on April 25. "We worked (Dortmund) and it was raining and sometimes when it rains, horses don't get enough water. He got a little colicy. By 9 o'clock at night he was comfortable, so we put him on the plane. Might have been a little nerves or something with the rain.
"It's one of those things where I'll just sit down and discuss it with Kaleem Shah. I'm sure he's going to want a little revenge. His horse ran a really good race. If Pharoah's that good, he's going to have to run hard. I would say right now if all's well, Dort looked good."
Expected to join those two at Pimlico is Firing Line, whose string of tough losses enhances his reputation even through the frustration. Firing Line sat just off Dortmund down the backside and, despite not switching leads, made American Pharoah work the way he never has to get by him in late stretch.
"You'd have to think if all is well that he's earned that right," trainer Simon Callaghan said. "We were glad we finally got to best Dortmund after he'd beaten us twice (in the Los Alamitos Futurity and Robert B. Lewis Stakes). And we believe we can be right there with American Pharoah. We'll walk him here for the next three or four days and monitor him. We'll then train with the Preakness in mind."
Baffert was in a reflective mood as he tried once more to put into words what has made American Pharoah so exceptional in rattling off what is now five straight wins, four of which have been Grade Is, from six career starts.
For one, the Hall of Fame conditioner marveled at how the reigning juvenile champion pulled himself together after getting agitated by the masses during the pre-race walkover from the barns.
"There were too many walkover people. They all wanted to be around him," said Baffert, now a four-time Derby-winning trainer. "Something set him off and he drug the groom right from the moment they were walking, he just pulled him all the way into the paddock.
"I think it took a little out of him to walk up there yesterday. He's such a good horse he overcomes a lot of things."
What many will hone in on in the inevitable early forecasting of American Pharoah's Triple Crown chances is how the bay colt was able to rate perfectly behind Dortmund and Firing Line and still fire late, rebuffing those who believed he needed to be on the lead to be his most effective.
"He's quick. He's handy. You can move on him at any time," Baffert said. "And I think with more racing, he's getting smarter. He wasn't rank with (jockey) Victor (Espinoza) at all. He can sit there and pounce and run by you and go a mile and a quarter."
Kiaran McLaughlin, trainer of fourth-place finisher Frosted, said the son of Tapit bounced out of the race well but that they would bypass the Preakness.
"He's doing well, but we don't often run back in two weeks," McLaughlin said, adding he would think about a run in the Belmont Stakes. "We've got a long year and a nice horse."
Trainer Mark Casse said they would "look at the Preakness" for fifth-place finisher Danzig Moon but that the Queen's Plate at Woodbine on July 5 is the main goal.
Among others the top three Derby finishers could face in Baltimore is Louisiana Derby winner International Star, who was scratched from the Kentucky Derby Saturday morning due to tenderness in his left front foot. Owner Ken Ramsey said the son of Fusaichi Pegasus was "walking perfectly sound" Sunday after soaking the foot in Epsom salts and that the Preakness was now the game plan.
"Our work is cut out for us at Baltimore; it could be our turn in the Belmont," Ramsey said. "But we're not going to skip (the Preakness)."
Stanford, second in the Louisiana Derby, is also probable for the Preakness as is Lexington Stakes winner Divining Rod.
While so-called "new shooters" always draw attention for the Preakness, the form of the race is largely in favor of horses coming back off two weeks. Seven of the last eight Preakness winners raced in the Kentucky Derby and 2009 heroine Rachel Alexandra came in off her Kentucky Oaks triumph.
"The Preakness is the easiest race of the legs," said Baffert, who has won that race five times. "If you run well in the Derby that means your horses are in top shape. After that, the Belmont, that's when it starts. You see your horse, it wears on them."