HOT SPRINGS, Ark. — It had been some time since American Pharoah's connections had the chance to let his actions do the talking.
Sidelined in October because of injury and only back on the worktab since early February, all the predictions slapped upon his bay shoulders were based on what the champion colt had done nearly six months ago — namely, the displays of dominance that had his Hall of Fame trainer using superlatives stronger than even he cares to admit.
His connections expected American Pharoah to be breathtaking when making his first start since last September in Saturday's Grade II, $750,000 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park.
With his ears pricked the entire 11⁄16 miles, American Pharoah answered that yes, he can be as special post-injury as he was before, throwing down a 61/4-length, gate-to-wire victory over six rivals in an outing that was as easy as one could expect from the reigning juvenile champion.
"Once he got to the first turn and he was in his groove, galloping, I thought, 'If he's the horse that we hope he is, he's in good shape,'" trainer Bob Baffert said from his California base. "You always hope that he's as good as he's been showing us in the mornings, and he was today."
With an estimated crowd of 30,000 at Oaklawn Park cheering his athletic strides, American Pharoah signaled his return to the forefront and answered questions as to whether his juvenile form could carry over into his 3-year-old season.
The last time the racing world had a chance to see Zayat Stables' homebred, he was heading into the Breeders' Cup Juvenile as the overwhelming favorite off back-to-back victories in the Grade I Del Mar Futurity and Grade I FrontRunner Stakes last summer.
He never did get the chance to show who he was in the Breeders' Cup as he was scratched out of the Juvenile with what was termed a left front foot problem.
In his absence, others like his Grade I-winning stablemate Dortmund have stolen the divisional spotlight with sublime outings in this run-up to the Kentucky Derby.
In the Rebel Stakes, American Pharoah responded with a shot across the bow. A slight bobble at the start caused the colt to pull his right front shoe partially off — not that it mattered, as he cantered through fractions of :24.41 and :49.63 on the front end in his first try over a sloppy track.
"I'm just tickled pink that's he's back and healthy, and he showed us he can relax," owner Ahmed Zayat said. "The race on paper was his to lose. But ... he hadn't run since September, he's a horse coming off an injury not running in five months. And honestly, I was freaking out over the mud.
"We asked a lot of him, we wanted to see how he handled it and he did it easy, slow fractions. The instructions to (jockey) Victor (Espinoza) were never to ask him, just let him be where he is. And we got what we wanted."
Both Zayat and Baffert maintain American Pharoah could rate behind horses if need be. Problem is, no challenger has been fast enough to get in front of him since he ran fifth in his career debut at Del Mar last August.
Even with a shoe dislodged Saturday, American Pharoah accelerated in the lane with Espinoza barely having to open the reins, hitting the wire in 1:45.78 over a sealed, sloppy surface.
"It was easy. It looked easy, and it was easy," said Espinoza. "He is a tremendous horse. He was very impressive."
Added Baffert, "He was running with that shoe bent all the way around there, that shows you what kind of horse he is."
Madefromlucky won the battle for second, finishing 21/2 lengths clear of Bold Conquest in third.
His win in the Rebel gives American Pharoah 50 points on the Kentucky Derby qualifying system, virtually guaranteeing his spot for the first leg of the Triple Crown should he make it there.
A return venture to Oaklawn Park for the Grade I Arkansas Derby on April 11 is likely for his final prep. Given that Baffert is gun-shy about feeding into the talk of the colt being one of his best-ever Derby prospects, he is grateful he can let this effort speak for itself.
"You guys can talk about it and write about it, but you're not getting anything out of me," Baffert said. "I'm just glad we got this one out of the way. It was a good race for him. I think he'll get a lot out of it."