American Pharoah answers key question in Arkansas Derby

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April 12th, 2015

Champion American Pharoah made a mockery of Saturday's $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1), winning in a laugher as the 1-10 favorite was fully entitled to do. But in the process, the Bob Baffert trainee answered a key question -- in a fashion so resounding -- that he now rates as the presumptive favorite for the Kentucky Derby (G1).

Until Saturday, American Pharoah has dispatched his foes on the front end, from the Del Mar Futurity (G1) to the FrontRunner (G1) and most recently in the Rebel (G2). While his naturally high cruising speed has been a lethal weapon in those venues, the Zayat Stables homebred has given the impression of a tractable type who didn't need the lead. That remained a hypothesis, though. With other pace factors sure to be in play in the Kentucky Derby, it was an open question whether American Pharoah would find himself embroiled in a duel. Would he condescend to be tactically versatile, or would he insist on having his way?

In the Arkansas Derby, American Pharoah convincingly addressed that concern by proving himself just as lethal as a stalker. The beauty of his performance was that he switched off so kindly while 38-1 longshot Bridget's Big Luvy bolted as many as three lengths clear. The champ was abiding in his own zone, comfortably settled just off the fast fractions of :22 3/5 and :45 4/5. As hot as the tempo was, American Pharoah appeared to have a superabundance in reserve. He went right past the tiring Bridget's Big Luvy on the far turn, while still in hand. Jockey Victor Espinoza sat chilly in the saddle as he drew off down the stretch. 

American Pharoah was simply cruising, his fluid strides a portrait of efficiency in motion, his ears pricked in an attempt to find something else to warrant his attention. None was forthcoming, for his overmatched rivals were in a heap behind him.  This was a display of superiority, which could be called arrogant, if it weren't for the fact that American Pharoah looks too well-mannered to be arrogant.

Despite Espinoza's gearing him down late, American Pharoah finished his last eighth in :12 2/5 and completed 1 1/8 miles in 1:48 2/5. Had he been allowed to keep his momentum for the duration, he likely would have bettered the time of 1:47 4/5 posted by the four-year-old Race Day in the Oaklawn H. (G2) earlier on the card. Note also that the older Race Day toted 116 pounds, and the sophomore American Pharoah carried 122.

Of the rest, Far Right once again delivered a sustained rally from the rear of the field for second. The honest closer figures to get some pace help in the Kentucky Derby as well, but he'd have to keep overachieving to get into the exotics at Churchill Downs. Third-placer Mr. Z continues to look exposed at this point, while Madefromlucky (fourth) and Bold Conquest (fifth) failed to build on their placed efforts in the Rebel.

American Pharoah answered one question, but another will only be answered in the Kentucky Derby: will he be as effective over 1 1/4 miles, or will that 10th furlong efface his supremacy? On the plus side, he's the fourth straight generation in his male line to take part in the Derby. His great-grandsire Unbridled won in 1990, and grandsire Empire Maker (2003) and sire Pioneerof the Nile (2009) were second in their respective years. And Empire Maker went on to win the Belmont (G1). There's a scruple about his maternal side, however. American Pharoah's dam, Littleprincessemma, is by speed merchant Yankee Gentleman. Moreover, she is a half-sister to a pair of graded-winning sprinters in Storm Wolf and Misty Rosette.

That said, horses as exceptionally gifted as American Pharoah often aren't constrained by pedigree niceties. His superlative effort here likely moves him past unbeaten stablemate Dortmund in the reckoning for Kentucky Derby favoritism.

Should American Pharoah scoff at that last pedigree question in the Derby, he would give owner/breeder Ahmed Zayat a deserved win in the Run for the Roses. The impresario of Zayat Stables has finished second three times -- with American Pharoah's sire Pioneerof the Nile, Nehro (2011) and Bodemeister (2012). But his biggest heartbreak was the career-ending injury suffered by red-hot favorite Eskendereya in the build-up to the 2010 Derby. Perhaps Pharoah's sovereignty is absolute after all, extending even to that elusive Derby trophy.

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Photo credit: Coady Photography.