Past the Wire
By Jonathan Stettin
Is American Pharoah the King
Leading into the 141st running of the Kentucky Derby, we heard a lot of talk about the quality of this year’s crop. The race was anticipated to be one of the best Run for the Roses we had seen in years. There was an abundance of quality, and the winner of every major Derby prep was in the field. The race itself, while slow, clocking in at 2:03.02, delivered. It produced a three horse stretch battle, won by favorite American Pharoah. American Pharoah, the horse with the misspelled name. There hadn’t been such hype of a horse prior to running in the Derby, that I can recall, since Hoist the Flag and Graustark – two immensely talented horses who failed to make the gate.
American Pharoah did what he had to do. He stalked the relatively slow pace for a Kentucky Derby set by his stablemate Dortmund, and outgamed Firing Line for the win. The funny thing is, after the race, although the horse delivered, the hype seemed to die down. While the bandwagon of a Kentucky Derby winner usually fills up fast, this one does not seem to have done so. In fact, the words like “freak,” and phrases like “best ever” and “he breathes different air” are no longer heard with the regularity they were prior to the race.
How does a lightly raced horse, who is still learning the game, win the Kentucky Derby, and quash all his hype at the same time? This is an interesting question. The obvious answer is, win the race in slow time, and require about 30 strikes from your rider’s whip in order to do so. After all, those would be the only two knocks on the horse you can reasonably come up with. Is that enough to go from a freak who breathes different air, and a best ever, to just another Kentucky Derby winner? That is, assuming we can even assert that there is such a thing as just another Derby winner. Maybe it is or maybe, and perhaps more likely, it has to do with what drives the hype itself. We see the word freak thrown around following almost every eye catching performance by a young horse. Rest assured they are not all freaks. Many never repeat the performance that inspired the use of the word. It appears to me that racing, and many of its fans, so hunger for that next truly great and special animal that they jump the gun.
This is not to say that American Pharoah is or isn’t that next horse. That question will be answered on the racetrack. What I think we can say is that the horse did nothing to detract from his hype by winning the Kentucky Derby. I am not as quick as many to knock or downgrade his performance. First off, let’s remember we are dealing with a young, inexperienced horse. American Pharoah is still a work in progress. He’s learning the game and advancing the way a nice colt should.
Although the time of this year’s running of the Derby was slow, so was the racetrack. The track was not a speed-biased super highway as we so often find on racing’s biggest days. It was an even and fair strip, albeit one that produced modest times on both Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby days. The use of the whip is also a non-issue when it comes to grading the horse’s performance. He needed urging, plenty of it, but so what? It was his first fight. We don’t know that he would or would not have thrown in the towel, we know Victor Espinoza didn’t let him. He also had a wide trip, wider than all but Frosted who he will not face in the Preakness.
American Pharoah heads to the second jewel of The Triple Crown with a lighter than expected bandwagon. Because he did not demolish the field, nor did he put up a fast time, some believers have become skeptics. Are they as premature jumping off the bandwagon as they were jumping on it? That is another question to be answered on Saturday, but I think the jumpers may be in trouble. American Pharoah may just show us the race many expected on the first Saturday in May.
What makes American Pharoah different than most of the hyped horses of recent times, is his progression. He was fast early, but not super-fast or too fast. He has gone forward every start, but not by leaps and bounds, which can so often lead to a bounce. He’s learned to relax some early and finish. He’s had his hard race and fought, and it’s more likely he goes forward Saturday and runs the best race to date in his short career. The only thing he hasn’t shown he can do yet is sit in a pocket and take some dirt. With a smaller field in The Preakness than in The Kentucky Derby, he may not have to answer that question on Saturday.
In the absence of both Materiality and Frosted from Saturday’s contest, the race comes down to a rematch of the first three Derby finishers. This makes for a very interesting handicapping contest. Dortmund had somewhat of a bout with colic leading up to the Run for the Roses. He set reasonable splits but didn’t have his customary fight in the stretch when the real race started. His gallop out was very good and we will never know if, and how much, colic affected his performance. It’s entirely reasonable to conclude that it did, and he may bounce back with a strong and improved race.
Firing Line gave American Pharoah about all he wanted and did it off a five week layoff – and more importantly, without changing leads in the stretch. Had Firing Line changed leads we may have had an even better horse race. Given the short turnaround of two weeks, and the savvy of his jockey Gary Stevens, Firing Line may well change leads on Saturday. He also galloped out great following the Derby.
Contrary to popular belief, there are times in The Sport of Kings when you just know. Saturday and the Preakness is not one of those times, as we have some legitimate variables to factor into the race. What is likely is that we will see one heck of a race. All three may be at their very best on Saturday, which makes any other winner almost a fairytale.
I think the early assessments of this year’s crop are accurate. That’s why even if American Pharoah runs his best to date on Saturday, it doesn’t guarantee him the win. He’ll have to handle two capable foes who may also move forward. It’s a handicapping dilemma, but the kind we welcome. While none will be long in price, all should offer some form of value in the exotics. You just have to pick the right one.
There will be nothing fancy from me come Saturday. I’ll be taking a cold exacta, and a cold triple. I won’t know the order until I finish my homework but I fully expect to get it right. I’ll get as creative as my handicapping allows but there are only so many variables in this quality contest. I’m expecting a great race to watch with at least one powerful performance and maybe more.
Jonathan Stettin is the author of Past The Wire, his regular column that holds no punches in tackling issues in the racing industry. Jonathan currently resides in Florida. He is a lifelong handicapper with several large Pick-6 scores to his name, including one for $540,000+ on August 10, 1994, at Saratoga.