LOUISVILLE — Horse racing’s meandering 37-year search for another Triple Crown winner has found its occasional crescendos of hope, and it may have found another at dusk Saturday. American Pharoah, the bay colt who led seasoned horse intellectuals to swoon to unusual degree, encountered 17 rivals in the 141st Kentucky Derby, and he had enough gumption that all 17 finished behind him.
As 72 hooves tore through the stretch at Churchill Downs before a record crowd of 170,513, American Pharoah stayed untroubled and well out wide. He didn’t present the mind-boggling romps he had staged this spring in Arkansas, but he won when winning wasn’t easy. He faced the kind of stout competition people wondered whether he could handle, and he withstood it.
He spent the stretch in close company with the lightly fancied Firing Line and the towering second favorite Dortmund, and bested them by a length and two lengths, respectively, with Frosted running fourth just a neck behind Dortmund. And he, American Pharoah, posted a time of 2 minutes 3.02 seconds that didn’t wow anyone but represented a hard-won victory.
American Pharoah became the third straight favorite to win the Kentucky Derby, and the fifth in nine years. He created quite the impressive span in the training career of 62-year-old Bob Baffert, whose fourth Derby win came 13 years after his third and 18 after his first. He made a winner again of jockey Victor Espinoza, one year after Espinoza won aboard California Chrome and 13 after he won aboard War Emblem, making Espinoza the seventh jockey to win three times and the sixth to win back-to-back.
And he made a winner at last of owner Ahmed Zayat, the emotional, Cairo-born 52-year-old who had suffered three other cases of near-win agony, including the second-place finish in 2009 of Pioneer of the Nile, who later became American Pharoah’s sire.
“It never gets old,” Baffert said in the winner’s circle on the NBC broadcast.
“I think I’m just a lucky Mexican to win three Kentucky Derbys and two in a row,” Espinoza said.
“I’m speechless,” the loquacious Zayat said, before saying, “We are just beyond blessed.”
All week, Baffert had dealt with his good and stressful fate in training both the top favorites in the race, American Pharoah and Dortmund. He had spoken of the difficulty of the Derby in general, of his crushing second-place photo finish with Cavonnier in 1996, of the differences in his wins between Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet in 1998 and War Emblem in 2002.
With so much hope and hype around American Pharoah, and so much other attention to the huge Dortmund, Baffert had hoped the race would just come, and when it did, it presented American Pharoah with sturdy challengers but nobody to run off with early speed. Espinoza kept American Pharoah wide and out of traffic pretty much all the way around, as if fully aware he had more horse than the rest.
Said Baffert: “This American Pharoah, he’s just something that just keeps bringing it. He makes a trainer look good.”
The trainer does look good in a draw with D. Wayne Lukas and Dick Thompson with four Derby wins, behind only Ben Jones’s six.
The ultimate joy, though, may have gone to Zayat, who entered the interview room, began with the word, “Finally,” and called it a “euphoria of emotions.” He said, “I still don’t believe it.” Seated to his left, his son Justin, a 23-year-old New York University student who serves as racing and stallion manager, called it a “dream.”
And 13 years after they teamed in a rush with War Emblem, a winner Baffert began training only weeks before the race, Baffert and Espinoza returned to the winner’s circle. They had done so with a horse who had seen little but daylight in winning the Rebel Stakes by four lengths in March, the Arkansas Derby by eight on April 11, and his four previous races (in five starts) by 22 1/2 lengths total.
“You know, I really feel a lot of positive energy with this horse,” Baffert said, referring to the horse’s “aura” and the sport’s hopes. He soon added, “He’s still a lightly raced horse, but he’s figuring it out in a big way.”
It had been “our Derby to lose,” Baffert said, referring to American Pharoah and Dortmund’s appearance at the top of the stretch. He reasoned that it “could have gone either way.” Three-time Derby winner Gary Stevens, aboard Firing Line, represented a threat between the two Baffert trainees.
Yet it was Baffert, again, who wound up saying, “I just feel so grateful.”