John Clay

John Clay: American Pharoah sets up yet another Triple Crown try

BALTIMORE — Despite the craziness Mother Nature threw his way, American Pharoah had just had his way with the Preakness, winning by seven lengths over a sloppy track at Pimlico when his trainer punctuated the performance.

"What a horse," proclaimed Bob Baffert. "Only a good horse can do that."

Then in the middle of a congratulatory hug from Jill Baffert, Bob told his wife, "That's a great horse."

How great?

We'll find out in three weeks.

Here we go again. For the 14th time since 1978, and the third time in the last four years, the Kentucky Derby winner has also won the Preakness, setting up a climactic Triple Crown bid when the horses continue on to Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y., for the third and final jewel on June 6.

At a mile-and-a-half, it's also the longest. And considering no horse has won all three races since Affirmed in 1978, the Belmont is also the toughest.

No one knows that better than Baffert. All four of his Derby winners have now also won the Preakness but the previous three fell short in the Big Apple. Silver Charm finished second to Touch Gold in 1997. Real Quiet was nipped at the wire by Victory Gallop in an excruciatingly close finish in 1998. The front-running War Emblem stumbled out of the gate and ran eighth in 2002.

Since then, we saw Birdstone pass Smarty Jones in the late stretch in 2004. We saw I'll Have Another mysteriously scratch out of the race the day before the 2012 Belmont.

Last year, we saw California Chrome finish fourth in a Belmont outcome that had his owner, Steve Coburn, famously fuming about the "cowards" who sat out one or both of the first two races before loading up for the final leg.

That will happen again, no doubt.

"I'm sure they'll have their knives out," said Baffert in Saturday's post-race press conference.

Given what Pharoah was able to do against the elements on Saturday, it will be tough for any horse to top this particular Preakness performance, however.

After threatening rain, with lightning flashes in the distance, for the hour leading up to the race, the skies finally opened during the post parade.

On a day when plumbing problems prevented water from getting to different areas of the track, suddenly there was all kinds of water all over Pimlico.

In fact, here was enough wind, rain and lightning to make you think it would be a good idea to postpone the start of the race a bit, though that didn't happen.

Under the roof of the indoor paddock, Bob and Jill Baffert, plus 10-year-old son Bode, were among a group huddled around an NBC television monitor watching what the weather was doing to the horses outside.

If Bob seemed fairly calm, Jill was more nervous, voicing her empathy for what the horses were going through.

Meanwhile, on the track, jockey Victor Espinoza said he was thinking, "Boy, there's a lot of water in my boots."

The water on the track was no problem, however, not for Pharoah. The son of Pioneerof the Nile won the Rebel Stakes over a sloppy track at Oaklawn before his Arkansas Derby win. He covered the Pimlico mess with pretty much the same ease, going to the front early.

Oh, there was a moment on the backstretch in which the challengers appeared to be gaining ground on the leader — "What's happening?" said Jill while watching on the monitor — but when Espinoza asked for effort, American Pharoah responded in a fashion more impressive than the one he displayed in his Churchill win.

"A sport without a star is not a sport," said Ahmed Zayat, the winning owner. "This is just an unbelievable honor and thrill."

"Bode could train this horse," quipped Baffert. "He's just a great horse."

Historically great?

We shall see.

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