HOT SPRINGS, Ark. -- Victor Espinoza tightened the reins and switched off the engines inside the sixteenth pole. As for his whip, the jockey should have left it back in California and brought a cigar instead. In a run-up-to-the Triple Crown season highlighted by several outstanding performances, this might have been the best: American Pharoah won Saturday's $1 million Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park as if the other horses in the race were superfluous, or, if not superfluous, then mere ornaments, here only to add some color to the performance.
It was perfect preparation for the colt who Saturday proclaimed himself to be the horse to beat in Kentucky.
And Espinoza never called on him, never asked for his best. As chilly as an oyster on the half-shell, Espinoza hardly moved. American Pharoah hardly ran. And yet he romped. Pricking his ears and looking for most of the race as if he were out for a gallop, he won by eight lengths. With his most recent stroll through the Ouachita Mountains, the champion juvenile of 2014 has won four consecutive stakes by a total of 22.25 lengths; but because he never has been pushed or fully extended nobody knows how good he is, and it's downright frightening to speculate how good this handsome colt might be. The depth of his talent remains largely unknown. But he's plenty good enough to be the favorite for the Kentucky Derby.
His trainer, Bob Baffert, said American Pharoah will travel directly from Oaklawn Park to Churchill Downs, where he'll soon begin preparing for the Kentucky Derby, to be run May 2. Since Smarty Jones won the Arkansas Derby in 2004 and went on to win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, no race has been more productive in terms of top-four finishes at Churchill Downs than this race at Oaklawn Park. But even longtime Arkansas Derby observers couldn't remember a more impressive performance in the race than American Pharoah's. Curlin's maybe, or Afleet Alex's or maybe even Smarty Jones' -- American Pharoah's performance here Saturday can stand beside those.
"He's amazing," Baffert said about the colt. "He's always been something special, right from the start. He's just an extremely intelligent and gifted horse."
And Saturday's race should serve perfectly as preparation for the most famous of races. In his previous victories, American Pharoah had controlled everything from start to finish, leading throughout. He had worked behind horses in the mornings and had run down targets in workouts, but his natural speed and talent had enabled him to dominate his races from the initial jump out of the gate. But Saturday, Bridget's Big Luvy, the winner of the Private Terms Stakes at Laurel Park in Maryland, sprang out of the gate and grabbed the early advantage, running the opening half-mile in 45.99 seconds and three-quarters of a mile in 1:10.54.
Perfect. That's just the sort of pace American Pharoah is likely to find in Kentucky. And he responded to it without turning a hair. He didn't insist on leading early; he didn't become rank. Content to stalk, he got into his rhythm and cruised.
In the second turn, Bridget's Big Luvy tired, and without being asked American Pharoah assumed control. From there, the only question was the margin of victory. And although it was eight lengths, it could have been 10 just as easily. Far Right, a two-time stakes winner here, finished second, rallying from last, and Mr. Z finished another three-quarters of a length back in the third.
"The way this horse runs is unbelievable," Espinoza said about American Pharoah. "I don't feel like he's running that fast, and then I look back and he's so far ahead. He was doing it by himself, and doing it easy."
American Pharoah ran the final three-eighths of a mile in 37.78 seconds and completed the 1-1/8 miles in 1:48.52. Earlier in the day, Race Day won the Oaklawn Handicap by running the 1-1/8 miles in 1:47.93. A winner of five of eight in his career and more than $550,000, the 4-year-old controlled the pace, saved ground and gave the performance of his life. American Pharoah, on the other hand, raced well off the rail, strolled around the track without being asked and won while being pulled up at the wire.
And so he'll soon travel to Churchill Downs, where he Dortmund could represent the most potent duo Kentucky has seen in 67 years. Baffert, of course, also trains Dortmund, the undefeated winner of the Santa Anita Derby. And so the Hall of Fame trainer has the two favorites for the Kentucky Derby. In 1948, legendary trainer Ben Jones saddled Citation and Coaltown for the Derby. They ran one-two at Churchill, and, of course, the great Citation went on to sweep the Triple Crown.
"He keeps moving forward," Baffert said about American Pharoah, "but I don't want to get ahead of myself. Dortmund is another one that we don't know how good he is. We've got a one-two punch."
And horse racing has the promise of an outstanding Triple Crown.