Kentucky Derby Dreaming: American Pharoah Steams Along

American Pharoah  Photo Credit: Benoit Photography
American Pharoah
Photo Credit: Benoit Photography

      American Pharoah certainly has a way to make things look easy. After being on the sidelines for most of the prep races, the Zayat runner was finally unveiled for his three year old campaign, and the faithful were not disappointed. 

      It didn’t matter that it had rained all day, or that the track was a proverbial soup; the son of Pioneerof the Nile bid his rivals farewell in the Rebel Stakes (Gr. I) at Oaklawn Park and floated his way to a virtually guaranteed spot in the starting gate come the first Saturday in May. There he will try to one up his sire and Bodemeister, both of whom finished second for the Zayat family. The handsome son of the “on-fire-sire” will not only try to defy the odds and make it there in the first place (Eskendereya was another Zayat horse that was the Derby favorite who never made it into the gate) but to also break the streak of second place finishes for the Zayats, who in 2012, won the Triple Crown for second place with Bodemeister finishing second in the first two legs of the Triple Crown to I’ll Have Another and Paynter finishing second in the last leg to Union Rags. Another Zayat derby horse from years passed, the late Nehro, also finished second in the run for the roses.

For whatever reasons people choose not to like him, they have to give him one thing: he does his best to get the job done. So what if the Rebel was basically a swim meet? It rains in Kentucky. So what if the competition wasn’t all that stellar? The Derby is more luck than anything else anymore and the best horses don’t always get in. So what if it wasn’t at the Derby distance? Most horses on the Triple Crown trail now-a-days won’t see a race of that distance until the Derby, much less the Belmont distance. Should he be crowned the next Triple Crown winner already as many on social media have jumped to proclaim him? Probably not, since -as mentioned above- he needs to get there first. There has been many a horse that simply didn’t make the field for one reason or another that turned out to be the superior animal to that year’s Derby winner, like the much contested example of Shared Belief and California Chrome.

Regardless of the odds and the various reasons to dislike him for the Derby, reports from Bob Baffert to owner Ahmed Zayat suggest that American Pharoah came out of the race not only raring for another one but also dragging his poor groom off his feet from all his excess energy. We will only know after the race just how much the Derby took out of him, but if this is American Pharoah who just ran through the slop over a demanding track off of a lengthy lay off, then I will take my chances on an even fitter and tighter American Pharoah come the day of the Derby and beyond for the rest of the trail. But let’s dissect the arguments against him for a bit, just to help make some sense of all the noise floating about social media from the couch coaches that train horses from their t.v. screens.

Many will argue that he won’t get an easy lead, so we all must expect him to struggle because they believe he won’t adapt. That’s unfair to him, to be cast away to the side just because you’ve crystal balled the Kentucky Derby. The Derby is known to do all kinds of crazy things in terms of set up and pace and it’s not a given that someone will want to gun out for the lead and challenge American Pharoah (assuming he’ll be up there in the first place). Bodemeister ran fractions that only the Great Secretariat before him pulled off, and almost won, only to be run down by I’ll Have Another coming from the back under a full head of steam (some like to make it sound like IHA breezed by Bodemeister like he wasn’t even moving, and that was not the case). Others have pulled fractions like those too and finished dead last. Some years, the Derby is so slow that pedestrian traffic to the concession stands probably moves faster than the horses running because the expected frontrunner stumbled and the closer/stalker suddenly found himself on the lead without a clue as to how to run on the front. No one can crystal ball a race; every option must be given fair consideration. What if the exact opposite happens, and he does get his way? That shouldn’t discredit his win because the exact opposite of what you thought would happen, happened.

An example of this was when, according to the psychics on social media, El Kabeir, yet another Zayat runner on the Derby hunt, was supposed to struggle in the Gotham because he wasn’t going to get an easy lead. Instead, he threw everyone for a loop and did exactly what people believed he would struggle with: adapt and win. Many people would argue that El Kabeir is not a superior horse to American Pharoah, so why is it such a big arguing point for people that he won’t win because he won’t have it easy? El Kabeir didn’t have it easy and he did just fine. American Pharoah had a scrambling break for the Rebel and did fantastic. Contrary to what some people apparently believe, horses do learn from their races, and they do toughen up. El Kabeir will likely remember this experience and should something similar occur in the Derby, he will adapt as best he can in order to give it his best effort. No less should be expected from American Pharoah simply because no one else has been good enough to beat him at his own game when the big running started.

Regardless of your view on his chances, should he make it to the Derby, and actually pull off a win, he will be not only fulfilling a great and fantastic dream for an owner, but also helping to put out some of the ache that has accompanied all the near misses and the dreams of what could have been. From there, it’s only natural that he will be carrying the hopes of a nation to finally get what it craves; for racing to finally get what it needs: a conqueror of the elusive Triple Crown. A hero beyond all measure.  The newest King of the Sport.

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