In the biggest news involving the pharaohs since King Tut’s tomb was discovered American Pharoah raced through a storm of biblical proportions to win the Preakness Stakes by seven lengths at the ancient Pimlico Race Course yesterday, Saturday, May 16 on NBC. The sudden downpour of torrential rain combined with wind and even some lightning surely would end the quest of trainer Bob Baffert’s latest super horse to win racing’s Holy Grail, the Triple Crown.
The sudden thunderstorm assault on the track left the jockeys slowly riding their rain-soaked racehorses with their heads downcast in circles around the suddenly sloppy track in a desperate attempt to keep them warmed up during the pre-race parade. The questions floating through the minds of many of the spectators was not whether the race would be delayed, but for how long.
Baffert’s wife Jill gazed in depression through binoculars at lane one, which was the path Pharoah would have to follow. It was drenched with enough rain to fill the Nile. She said, “That’s not fair.” Her husband tried to keep the situation light, saying, “The water will be up to his ear plugs.”
All the luck had seemed to be against Pharoah ever since he drew the unlucky number one post position. That meant he would have to start the race up against the rail. The downpour made that position look even more unpalatable.
Bob Baffert later would say to USA Today, “I’ve never been through anything like that. That was crazy. I thought, I don’t know what’s going to happen with the thunder. These horses, I could tell they didn’t like it when they get pelted like that. They showed a picture of the track (on TV), with like a river running on the rail, and I thought. He’s got to run through that?”
But jockey Victor Espinoza wisely changed his strategy when the rain-laden clouds sailed directly over Pimlico and unleashed a downpour which will make this a historic race based on the weather conditions alone. He said later on NBC-TV, which carried the race, “I wasn’t sure if I would go for the lead right out of the gate when the weather was good. But when the track turned sloppy I knew I was going for the lead immediately.”
His thoughts mirrored what Baffert’s 10-year old son Bode said during an interview on NBC before the Kentucky Derby two weeks ago when he said, “He’s got to go to the lead. Horses don’t like to run with dirt thrown in their faces.”
The interviewer laughed and said to Baffert, “Your son’s coming after your job, Bob!”
But his words were prophetic yesterday at the Preakness. Certainly, neither horses nor jockeys like to run into mud being tossed into their faces. Espinoza told Pharoah with a movement of the reins to take the lead coming out of the gate, and the sensational three-year old did just that. He charged into the lead along the rail as the race started and never relinquished it.
This strategy was the exact opposite of the one followed to win the Kentucky Derby two weeks ago. In that race Pharoah trailed most of the race and had to run to the outside around the final turn at Churchill Downs to find racing room. He reportedly raced three lengths longer than his rivals to win that race.
But this dramatic race through conditions even a mailman wouldn’t traverse, brings Bob Baffert and his intelligent horse to a place he’s been three times before. On the threshhold of winning the Triple Crown. If he can win the Belmont Stakes on June 6 in New York he will become the first horse since Affirmed in 1978 to accomplish the feat. He would also become only the 12th horse alltime to win the three big races.
Finishing second in the 1 3/16-mile race was unheralded Tale of Verve. Diving Rod survived the slashing rain for third.
Baffert believes this horse has the ability to win the Triple Crown. He told the owner earlier “this is the horse I’ve been waiting for my whole career.” That means something coming from Baffert who has compiled an unparalleled record in the annals of racing.
The Arizona legend has trained three previous horses who have made it this far on the Triple Crown Trek. Silver Charm, Real Quiet and War Emblem all won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness for the extroverted trainer who cracks jokes at the drop of a hat.
Silver Charm came close in 1997, Real Quiet made his bid in 1998 and War Emblem did his thing in 2002.
The longest previous drought between Triple Crown winners was 25 years when Secretariat won it all in 1973. Citation’s sweep in 1948 was the last before Big Red won the Belmont by 31 lengths in ’73. Golfing great Jack Nicklaus watched Secretariat’s feat and said he broke down and cried because he felt he was watching perfection.
The sportscaster calling the Belmont said, “Secretariat is running like a machine. He’s in first place and the second place horse is…….in another zip code.”
Viewers were treated to the unusual sight of Secretariat running alone across the finish line with no other horse even on the TV screen. Secretariat is generally considered the greatest ever as he has the record for all three Triple Crown races.
Although Pharoah certainly looked like the next super horse yesterday, people should be wary of assuming he will win the Belmont. Only last year California Chrome was touted as the next superhorse and he finished fourth in the grueling Belmont, according to Five Thirty Eight. For more than 30 years the 1 and 1/2 mile Belmont has been disaster for those would-be Triple Crown winners.
The distance is usually blamed. Racehorses in modern times just don’t race that far in the U.S. In fact, the Belmont is the only race of that length which many of these thoroughbreds will tackle during their entire careers.
Another factor working strongly against Pharoah is the fact this year Dallas trainer Todd Pilcher is resting his best horses for the Belmont. He didn’t enter them in the Preakness in order to give them a rest.
This is also the age of specialization. Most horses are bred to go either shorter distances or longer ones. But certainly not both.
So if American Pharoah can overcome all these obstacles in three weeks after we hear the refrains of “New York, New York”, he truly will deserve all the accolades thrown his way.