BALTIMORE — First came the ominous winds, the menacing strikes of lightning and a deluge that overtook Pimlico Race Course and threatened the 140th running of the Preakness Stakes.
What followed next was a thunderous performance by Kentucky Derby winner American Pharoah as he shook the record crowd of 131,680 to its core and stirred up the kind of emotions only transcendent types typically evoke.
The rain storm that descended moments before the field of eight for the $1.5 million Preakness Stakes loaded into the gate was nothing compared to the squall headed toward New York in three weeks. For the third time in the last four years, a chance at kicking down the door to Triple Crown glory hangs in the balance as American Pharoah tucked away the second leg of the classic series in condescending manner, winning the 13⁄16-mile race by 7 lengths in front-running fashion.
The list of immortals who have swept the Derby, Preakness and 11/2-mile Belmont Stakes has sat at 11 since Affirmed last pulled off the feat in 1978. Throroughbred racing has had its collective hearts dragged through the mud since, as 13 horses have come into the marathon Belmont with a shot at getting past the velvet rope only to have injury or circumstance derail such acclaim. California Chrome's failed bid last year was the most recent crusher.
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Since the day he has had a saddle on his back, those around American Pharoah have insisted he is different — better, faster, more fluid than those who try to equal his stride.
Indeed, Zayat Stables' homebred juvenile champion bore no resemblance to his seven challengers Saturday.
Where others spun their wheels over the rain-drenched, sloppy track and gave all they could just to keep contact with him through fractions of 22.90 and 46.49 seconds, the son of Pioneerof the Nile merely threw his ears up and cantered home like an ebullient child splashing through puddles.
"I've never been through anything like that. I thought with the thunder ... how is he going to react," said trainer Bob Baffert, who celebrated his sixth career Preakness victory and will now bring a horse into the Belmont with a shot at the Triple Crown for a fourth time in his career. "I was thinking all these different things. But once (jockey) Victor (Espinoza) had him in the bit and was turning down the backside — when I saw those ears go up I thought, 'Oh yeah.'
"He's just an amazing horse. Everyone talks about the greatness and it's just starting to show now. To me, they have to prove it. Today, the way he did it, he just ran so fast. It was like poetry in motion."
There would have been excuses for American Pharoah if he had come up short over the soggy Pimlico surface.
The now five-time Grade I winner had to break from the rail, right alongside stablemate Dortmund, and had Kentucky Derby runner-up Firing Line to his outside in post No. 8, the perfect spot to take aim at the target on his flank.
Superior horses have a knack for leaving the business of regrets to others. And much like his win in the Grade II Rebel Stakes on March 14 over a sloppy Oaklawn Park surface, American Pharoah never flinched while others floundered.
After breaking slightly toward Dortmund, American Pharoah faced maiden winner Mr. Z at his neck as those two opened up a handful of lengths on the rest of the field going into the first turn.
While his challenger was trying to put the screws to him early, American Pharoah responded by hammering all those behind him. Espinoza guided him through honest fractions, gave him a slight breather down the backside, and then let the colt deliver his signature soul-crushing move when he spurted away on the final turn as Mr. Z, Dortmund, and eventual third-place finisher Divining Rod tried to challenge.
"Today was an amazing race for him. Every race I learn something new, and it surprised me the way he runs," said Espinoza, who has twice had a chance at the Triple Crown, most recently aboard California Chrome. "I couldn't really see how far I was in front because there was so much water in my eyes.
"I didn't even worry about track conditions, I just worried about American Pharoah, the way he was traveling. He was traveling super in there."
As Espinoza guided the 4-to-5 favorite across the wire in a final time of 1:58.46, a moral victory was taken by trainer Dallas Stewart. Tale of Verve, the maiden winner who failed to draw into the Derby field after being entered as the second also-eligible, closed from last to get second one length ahead of Divining Rod.
"I think this validated what he is. He's an improving horse. It was a wonderful run," Stewart said. "Congratulations to the winner. We will see him at Belmont."
Firing Line, sent off as the 3-to-1 second choice, stumbled at the break en route to coming home seventh.
"He never got hold of the track, obviously he didn't like the track," trainer Simon Callaghan said. "Nothing went right, what with all that rain coming."
Other than a loss in his career debut at Del Mar last August, everything has gone just as those around him predicted for American Pharoah.
Owner Ahmed Zayat joked that he didn't want to give in to hyping his horse beforehand, preferring to let brilliance speak on its own behalf. With a place in racing annals now in his grasp, Zayat's emotions overwhelmed him Saturday.
"The sign of a good horse is whatever is thrown in his face, he finds a way to win," Zayat said. "I tweeted a couple days ago the real Pharoah will show up and, indeed, he put on a show today. No one could come close to him."