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Homeracing

American Pharoah in the Preakness: Likes and Dislikes

Profile Picture: Vance Hanson

May 5th, 2015

With Kentucky Derby 141 now in the books, the big question on everyone’s mind is whether American Pharoah will replicate his Derby victory in the $1.5 million Preakness at Pimlico on May 16, thus setting up a Triple Crown bid at Belmont Park on June 6.

There are things to like and dislike about American Pharoah’s candidacy in the second jewel of the Triple Crown. Here are a few.

LIKES

Bob Baffert: All of the Hall of Fame trainer’s previous Derby winners -- Silver Charm, Real Quiet, and War Emblem -- repeated two weeks later in the Preakness. With Point Given and Lookin at Lucky, he won Pimlico’s signature event with horses that had bombed as the Derby favorite. The man simply knows how to win this race, especially when he has seemingly the best horse in the crop.

Field size: The Preakness field is projected to be about half that of the Derby. While American Pharoah encountered little difficulty winning at Churchill Downs, there’s a reasonable expectation that with a smaller field the chances of traffic or other serious mishaps occurring are greatly reduced.

American Pharoah: Let’s face it, the colt lived up to the hype and beat every single horse in what was considered the deepest Derby field in years. That says a lot, and chances are he isn’t going to regress much, if at all, in two weeks.

DISLIKES

New shooter: The record of so-called “new shooters” in the Preakness is admittedly poor. Of the 50 Kentucky Derby winners to have contested the Preakness since 1962, only six were defeated by horses they did not face at Churchill Downs.

The newcomer who will get a lot of pub, if he runs, is the undefeated Competitive Edge, who broke Hall of Famer Ack Ack’s 46-year-old stakes record in the Pat Day Mile (nee Derby Trial) on Saturday in sparkling time of 1:34. His margin of victory was “only” 4 1/2 lengths, the smallest of his four-race career. He hasn’t yet run beyond a mile, but that didn’t stop the likes of Bernardini from wearing the blanket of black-eyed susans.

American Pharoah: Whether it was the higher quality of the opposition and/or the effects of a wide trip, American Pharoah’s victory was more workmanlike than jaw-dropping. Victor Espinoza went to the whip at least two dozen times in the final quarter-mile, and the winning margin was only a length over Firing Line, who some considered questionable at 1 1/4 miles based on his pedigree. All of which suggests the gap between American Pharoah and other leading members of the crop isn’t quite as large as initially suspected.

Dortmund: Not to sound like sour grapes as he was my top pick, but raise your hand if you think you saw Dortmund’s best race in the Derby. The word around the Baffert barn all spring was that Dortmund was strictly second banana to American Pharoah, and that proved to be the case in the Derby.

However, I have a suspicion Dortmund’s effort might have been stronger if Martin Garcia had kept him farther off the rail (say, three or four paths), thus keeping his main rivals farther outside. While staying on the rail is the shortest way around the track, I have doubts whether that was the very best place to be, especially for a colt that tends to find more in the stretch when able to look his rivals in the eye.

I’m also not sure whether trying to lull his rivals to sleep with moderate fractions was necessarily best. Sure, it kept most of the competition from being able to close, but you have to wonder if Dortmund would have been better served by having a larger lead, brought about by faster splits, approaching the quarter pole. Perhaps that was not going to happen given the way the track slowed down late in the day, but it’s worth thinking about.

Baffert also revealed, on Sunday morning after the race, that Dortmund had dealt with a minor bout of colic prior to shipping to Churchill the previous weekend. It might not have been much, but even the slightest hiccup in preparation for the Kentucky Derby is nothing to completely dismiss.

As the Preakness field takes shape in the coming days, there will be plenty of opportunity to analyze American Pharoah’s chances. He merits all the respect in the world and will be hard to beat, but from this vantage point he’s not invincible.

(American Pharoah photo: Wendy Wooley/EquiSport Photos)

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