BALTIMORE — American Pharoah won the Kentucky Derby yet didn’t look unbeatable, like he had in his previous races.
His trainer said he struggled.
His jockey went to the whip about 30 times to urge him on in the stretch.
His owner said the Derby wasn’t even close to his best effort.
And now it’s time for the Preakness, where a victory Saturday would set up American Pharoah for a Triple Crown chance at the Belmont Stakes in three weeks. It also would give trainer Bob Baffert an unprecedented fourth Triple try.
Is American Pharoah up to the task?
“That horse didn’t really get his ‘A’ game together in the Kentucky Derby, and he still won,” marveled Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas, who trains long shot Mr. Z, on Friday morning outside the stakes barn at Pimlico Race Course. “That’s a scary thought.”
American Pharoah, owned by Ahmed Zayat, is the 4-5 morning-line favorite in an eight-horse field and will be ridden by Victor Espinoza. Stablemate Dortmund, third in the Derby, is the second choice at 7-2, and Derby runner-up Firing Line is 4-1.
Dortmund also is trained by Baffert, setting up the possibility of a trainer spoiling his own Triple Crown chance. It happened 20 years ago to Lukas, but Baffert said of Dortmund: “He deserves another chance.”
Zayat, a three-time Derby runner-up before winning two weeks ago, is confident American Pharoah will prove again he’s the horse of a lifetime.
“I don’t believe the Derby showed the sheer brilliance of American Pharoah,” Zayat said. “I hoping you will see the real AP again on Saturday. He is giving me all signs that he is ready again.”
His colt isn’t the only one ready to go.
Dortmund, with Martin Garcia aboard, is looking to avenge his first loss after six wins; Firing Line ran second to Dortmund twice, then fell a length short of American Pharoah in the Derby.
“Hopefully we can turn the tables on American Pharaoh, the same as we did Dortmund,” said Gary Stevens, Firing Line’s Hall of Fame jockey and a three-time Preakness winner.
Divining Rod comes into the 13?16th-mile Preakness after winning the Lexington Stakes and skipping the Derby. The colt is owned by Gretchen and Roy Jackson’s Lael Stables and marks the Jacksons’ first entry in the Preakness since 2006, when Derby winner Barbaro shattered a leg at the start of the race and was euthanized in January 2007.
“We’ve put all that behind us and can’t wait to see what Divining Rod can do,” Roy Jackson said. “We hope he’ll be competitive, but he deserves to be in the race and given a chance.”
The field, from the rail out, is American Pharoah, Dortmund, Mr. Z, Danzig Moon, Tale of Verve, Bodhisattva, Diving Rod and Firing Line. Post time is 5:18 p.m. CDT on NBC.
“Several of these horses look good,” said New Orleans’ Dallas Stewart, the trainer of Tale of Verve. “But there’s not much question that American Pharoah is still the horse to beat.”
The post-position draw did not go Baffert’s way, with his horses getting the two inside posts.
History says he has reason for concern. Tabasco Cat, in 1994, was the last Preakness winner out of the No. 1 post. Snow Chief, in 1986, was the last to win from the No. 2 post.
The start could turn into the most critical part of the race. A stumble out of the gate likely ends any chance at victory. The same with jostling for position into the first turn. The top three choices are expected to be on or near the lead, but Espinoza needs to make sure American Pharoah doesn’t get pinned on the inside and forced to drop back.
Then again, most of the horses in the field have a similar get-to-the-front style, and if the pace is too fast early on, it could set the stage for a closer like Danzig Moon to pull an upset.
If American Pharoah wins, it would be the 14th time since Affirmed swept the Derby, Preakness and Belmont in 1978 that a Triple Crown would be on the line in the Belmont.
Baffert won the Derby and Preakness with Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet in 1998 and War Emblem in 2002. All came up short in the Belmont.
The forecast for Saturday calls for temperatures in the 80s, with a 40 percent chance of scattered thunderstorms.