BALTIMORE — The thing about the Kentucky Derby is, it is supposed to be unforgiving. Facing the largest field and the longest distance of their lives, a 3-year-old horse is supposed to give the best performance of its life to earn the roses in the first leg of the Triple Crown.
Upon reviewing the 141st running of the classic, trainer Bob Baffert is among those not convinced the bay colt that crossed the wire one length in front actually delivered his top effort that day.
If American Pharoah can win the hardest race of his career on back class, it stands to reason his seven challengers in Saturday's 140th Preakness Stakes are up against a force more dynamic than even his championship résumé suggests.
There are multiple cases that can be made for a colt other than the Kentucky Derby hero to end up in the Pimlico Race Course winner's circle. Derby runner-up Firing Line has looked every bit the dynamo during training hours. Previously unbeaten Dortmund stands to improve off his third-place effort two weeks ago. And, small field or not, the No. 1 post position American Pharoah is set to break from isn't anyone's idea of ideal.
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A common refrain suggests that while the best horse doesn't always win the Kentucky Derby, the top 3-year-old usually prevails in the 13⁄16-mile Preakness Stakes — backed up by the fact that 12 of the race's last 15 winners went on to take divisional honors.
Even though American Pharoah reportedly didn't relish the tiring Churchill Downs surface on the first Saturday in May, the son of Pioneerof the Nile still overpowered all with his effortless motion and has been skipping over the Pimlico surface since arriving on the grounds Wednesday.
"I don't really think Dortmund brought his 'A' game, Pharoah probably didn't bring his super 'A' game (in the Derby)," said Baffert, who conditions both colts for Kaleem Shah and Zayat Stables, respectively. "It looked like they came out of the race really well. American Pharoah hadn't had a hard race. That was a good, stiff, hard race for him and it looks like he handled it pretty well. He's a very exciting horse to watch and the way he moves over the track, he just floats."
Unlike many horsemen, Baffert — a five-time winner of the Preakness — doesn't fear the two-week turnaround from the Derby to the Preakness, and conditions his horses to stand up to the demand. Thus, if those who American Pharoah vanquished are giving off positive vibes, it speaks to what the reigning juvenile champion is capable of by association.
The four-time Grade I winner had to swing out five wide turning for home in the Derby, but still wore down Firing Line — whom jockey Gary Stevens maintains was so fresh after the race he needed help being pulled up.
"He's training really well and we're expecting a better performance (in the Preakness)," said Justin Zayat, racing and stallion manager for Zayat Stables. "He wasn't tested in the Rebel, he jogged in the Arkansas Derby. His workouts were stronger than those races were. So to get the 1¼ miles race under his belt, he needed that."
Though American Pharoah will have to work out a trip in a Preakness field that figures to have at least three others battling for front-end positioning, his stablemate Dortmund could actually provide an ideal target breaking alongside him out of post No. 2.
"(The one hole) is not that big a deal. (American Pharoah) is a very good horse ... I don't think that's a big compromise," said Hall of Famer trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who will saddle long shot Mr. Z in the Preakness. "If everybody clears him and drops down, that's going to compromise him, but I don't think that will happen.
"I think Bob will send Dortmund and make sure there is some place to go with the other horse. I'd be really surprised if that doesn't happen."
Firing Line has the benefit out of post No. 8 of allowing Stevens to see what his main challengers do and react in kind. Danzig Moon, fifth in the Kentucky Derby, also figures to have a bird's-eye view of the early pace setup out of post No. 4.
"If Dortmund goes, you're going to have Stevens (on Firing Line) licking his chops because he's going to keep American Pharoah down in there," said Mark Casse, trainer of Danzig Moon. "If Victor Espinoza (on American Pharoah) yells to Martin Garcia (on Dortmund) 'I'm here,' will Garcia come off the rail and let American Pharoah go? And us, we just sit back and hope it all happens."
Divining Rod, winner of the Grade III Lexington Stakes at Keeneland, is the most dangerous of the three "new shooters," though only six horses since 1980 have won the Preakness without running in the Derby, one of those being champion filly Rachel Alexandra in 2009 who captured the Kentucky Oaks.
The big concern for Derby-winning connections usually centers on if their horse can maintain form off a career-best effort. American Pharoah's freakish reputation now hinges on his ability to keep improving on a standard that none of his peers have touched.
"I think he won the Derby without bringing his A game and he still won on class," Lukas said. "He is the best horse. It's hard to deny him. But I don't think he can run his Derby race again here and win. I think he has to run a little better."