LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- From this point on, the Triple Crown is about the black cats. They're all that stand between American Pharoah and the jewelry.
He won Saturday's Kentucky Derby by only a length here at Churchill Downs, but his superiority was greater. From the moment the horses passed the grandstand for the first time and entered the first turn, he looked like the winner, cruising comfortably behind the early leaders, Dortmund and Firing Line.
Confident that he was on the best horse, jockey Victor Espinoza was indifferent to the niceties of geometry; he accepted a wide trip, sacrificed the lengths that an overland journey involved, and simply kept American Pharoah in the clear. Wide in the first turn, wide in the second and in the middle of the track down the stretch, American Pharoah ran to the leaders and then eased by them. The closest he ever came to losing the Kentucky Derby was when his trainer, Bob Baffert, narrowly escaped an encounter with a local black cat this week.
"Today, finally, I let him run," Espinoza said, referring to American Pharoah's easy victories at Oaklawn Park, in the Rebel Stakes and the Arkansas Derby, where he was taken in hand in deep stretch. Finally, he found himself in a fight, finally he felt Espinoza's whip and he responded with determination. The victory seemed inevitable from the start, when he broke cleanly, and maybe even before then.
Baffert is profoundly superstitious, not that he believes in such things as black cats and jinxes, you understand, but, well, why risk it? In 1998, Baffert took Real Quiet, who had won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, to New York with a chance for a historic sweep of the sport's famed jewels. Just when Baffert looked like he had the baroque crown in hand, a black cat jumped in front of him. Real Quiet lost the Belmont Stakes by a nose.
And in 2001, Baffert came here with Point Given, a big chestnut colt that the trainer quietly thought had a chance, yes, to sweep the jewels. Just before the Derby, as Point Given went to the track one morning for routine training, a black cat jumped in his path. Point Given finished fifth in the Derby before going on to win the Preakness and Belmont Stakes.
"I got a thing about black cats," Baffert said, and who could blame him? Early this week, Baffert explained, he was in his car with his son Bode, and a black cat ran across the street directly in front of them. Baffert immediately stomped on the brakes and made a sudden U-turn in traffic. And American Pharoah won the Derby.
And so the evidence is clear. If Baffert and American Pharoah can avoid the feline curse -- well, something special could happen. None of these horses that chased American Pharoah home Saturday can beat him. The sheer grind of the Triple Crown might beat him, for he's not especially robust, or maybe the distance of the Belmont Stakes, but, in truth, they don't seem nearly as threatening at this point as the black cat.
If anything, American Pharoah wasn't as impressive in winning the Derby as expected. The final time wasn't especially fast -- 2:03.02 for the 1 1/4 miles, with a final quarter-mile in 26.57 seconds -- nor the margin audaciously dominating. Firing Line briefly put his head in front of Dortmund in the second turn and held on stubbornly for second. Dortmund, a stablemate of the winner, finished two lengths back in third, with Frosted rallying for fourth, a neck further back.
Could Firing Line or Dortmund have a better chance in the slightly shorter Preakness? Probably not. American Pharoah looked like he could take them whenever Espinoza asked. Could Frosted catch American Pharoah in the 1½ miles of the Belmont? Maybe, but with the soporific pace that's typical of the final event in the famed series, American Pharoah, who gallops faster than some horses run, would have to do little more than saunter for the first eight or nine furlongs.
The Kentucky Derby was only American Pharoah's third start this year. And this was the first time he felt any pressure or had to sustain a run. It should be eye-opening for him. And it's quite possible that he'll step forward from this with a much better performance in Baltimore.
Some newcomers, such as Lexington Stakes winner Divining Rod, will no doubt try to crash the party. But this was an outstanding field for the 141st Derby. Everybody was here, all the best and most accomplished 3-year-olds in the country, and it hardly seems likely that anybody is going to jump out of the bushes and scare American Pharoah in the Preakness or Belmont. Unless it's a black cat.