BALTIMORE — Minutes before the Preakness, there was an ominous scene at Pimlico Race Course.
Thunder and lightning. Wind and rain. A record crowd scrambling for cover. A drenched racetrack.
But nothing — absolutely nothing — was going to stop American Pharoah ... especially the competition.
Thunder rumbled as the starting gate opened, and the Kentucky Derby winner took charge early and overpowered seven rivals, winning by seven lengths to put trainer Bob Baffert back in the Triple Crown groove.
“Great horses do great things,” Baffert said after his sixth Preakness victory, “and he showed that today. He’s just an incredible horse.”
And in three weeks, the stage will be set for the ultimate drama in racing — a Triple Crown attempt at the Belmont Stakes.
“I don’t even want to think about the Triple Crown right now,” the 62-year-old trainer said. “I want to enjoy this. It’s tough up there.”
American Pharoah, who started from the rail under Victor Espinoza, will be the 14th Derby-Preakness winner to have a shot at becoming the first to sweep the Derby, Preakness and Belmont since Affirmed in 1978.
For Baffert, he’ll be making an unprecedented fourth attempt at a Triple. He won the Derby and Preakness with Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet in 1998 and War Emblem in 2002. All three fell short in the Belmont.
A rainstorm began about 15 minutes before the race went off, preceded by several lightning bolts, but it didn’t affect American Pharoah, a sweet-striding 3-year-old. The colt dealt with similar conditions in winning the Rebel Stakes in March.
Part of the record crowd of 131,680 may have missed the race as they fled the infield and huddled under tents. No matter. The result was not a surprise.
The dominant win confirmed owner Ahmed Zayat’s belief that American Pharoah is a champion in the making.
“I always told everybody American Pharoah would show up today,” said Zayat, drenched after his trip to the winner’s circle. “Indeed he did. He is the real deal.”
American Pharoah may have only half a tail and sensitive ears that Baffert stuffs with cotton, but he’s pretty close to perfection. Bought back at auction by Zayat for $300,000, American Pharoah earned $900,000 for the win to boost his winnings to $3.7 million.
A Triple Crown is priceless.
“He put on a show today,” said Zayat, a businessman from Egypt who lives in Teaneck, New Jersey. “Nobody came close to him.
He added: “The sport without star is not a sport.”
Espinoza has his chance at history, too. Although his horse in the previous race was scratched when it reared up in the starting gate and fell, Espinoza remained unfazed.
In fact, he became the first jockey to have a third try at a Triple Crown. The 42-year-old rider from Mexico won the Derby and Preakness with War Emblem in 2002 and California Chrome last year, but fell short in the Belmont.
“I hope the third one is the charm,” Espinoza said.
American Pharoah broke a step slow before Espinoza hustled him to the lead. He then fended off a brief bid from Mr. Z, while American Pharoah’s stablemate, Dortmund, and Derby runner-up Firing Line were never factors.
“He didn’t like the sloppy track,” said Dortmund’s rider, Martin Garcia. “He didn’t come out good from the gate. He didn’t like the mud in his face.”
Simon Callaghan, who trains Firing Line, said the horse lost all chance when he stumbled a stride out of the gate.
“That took his momentum and then he never really got hold of the track,” Callaghan said.
American Pharoah comes into the 1.5-mile Belmont with a six-race winning streak. His margin of victory in the Preakness was the largest since Smarty Jones won by a record 111/2 lengths in 2004. It matched the sixth-largest margin in Preakness history.
Tale of Verve, trained by New Orleans’ Dallas Stewart, was a distant second, followed by Divining Rod, Dortmund, Mr. Z, Danzig Moon, Firing Line and Bodhisattva. The winning time for the 13?16 miles was 1:58.46.
American Pharoah was sent off as the 4-5 favorite and returned $3.80, $3.40 and $2.80. Tale of Verve returned $19 and $8.80, and Divining Rod paid $5.20.
“It went very well,” Espinoza said. “He bounced out of there. He broke a little tiny bit slow, and I pushed him to the front.”
The Belmont looms.