'Pharoah' finds next level

BALTIMORE -- He looked like a kid gamboling through a water-sprinkler shower. Loping along on an easy lead over a sloppy and watery surface he clearly relished, American Pharoah pricked his ears and opened up a clear advantage on the Pimlico backstretch. Asked to run down the lane, he won Saturday's Preakness by seven lengths. That was the easy part.

The hard part is next. American Pharoah's victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness will tincture with expectation everything he does and every move he makes over the next three weeks, because if he can succeed at Belmont Park on June 6, he'll become the sport's 12th Triple Crown winner.

But history and skepticism can argue quite convincingly against that happening. "New shooters" and rested rivals await him in New York. As his trainer, Bob Baffert, said, they're even now "sharpening their knives." Circumstances unique in American racing await him, too: the longest of the Triple Crown races and a sandy mile-and-a-half oval. But based on what I've seen from American Pharoah at Oaklawn Park, Churchill Downs and especially in the Preakness, he could be just the horse to sweep the famed series. I think he'll do it.

Since Affirmed swept the sport's three gems in 1978, 13 horses have traveled to New York with a chance at claiming the cherished crown. Some got close, but they all failed. Four finished second and four third. Big Brown didn't finish at all, and I'll Have Another was scratched. For many observers and fans, a sweep of the Triple Crown has become chimeric, illusory. You had might as well hope for world peace.

Even worse, a disturbing pattern for Belmont success that has developed in recent years argues against running in the Preakness. Or, to look at it a little differently, recent years have suggested that running in the Preakness can compromise a horse's Belmont chances. Of the 10 Belmont Stakes winners since 2005, only Afleet Alex raced here. He also raced in the Derby, finishing third. And four of the last 10 Belmont winners skipped Baltimore's middle jewel after racing unsuccessfully in the Kentucky Derby. And so, as you might expect based on the recent history, several horses that raced in the Kentucky Derby but not in the Preakness are expected for the Belmont Stakes: Frosted, Materiality, Keen Ice, Carpe Diem and Frammento. A "new shooter" for the final race in the series could be Madefromlucky, who finished second to American Pharoah in the Rebel Stakes but won the recent Peter Pan. They're all, as Baffert said, be sharpening their knives.

Yes, the hard part is next. So why could American Pharoah be different from all the recent horses that traveled to New York with Triple Crown aspirations? Baffert, who saddled three of those 13, pointed out that his other Derby-Preakness winners had demanding and stressful races in Baltimore. Silver Charm fought to the wire and won in a photo; Real Quiet rallied and had to overcome a wide trip; War Emblem had to put away early challenges in fast fractions before winning by less than a length. American Pharoah, on the other hand, had a relatively easy time of it Saturday, gamboling along through the rain and the slop and winning by seven lengths.

And here's the other reason American Pharoah could very well become the 12th Triple Crown winner: He's as responsive as a sports car, capable of immediate acceleration and equally capable of relaxing. That talent was on display in the 140th Preakness.

Rain began falling in a drizzle as the eight horses in the Preakness began their walk from the stable to the saddling area. The rain steadily accelerated, hitting a downpour with about 12 minutes to post and then torrential speed during the post parade. In minutes, the rain transformed a fast racetrack into a quagmire, with a gully running along the inside rail.

Baffert said he was worried. What's happening, he wondered, to the cotton balls American Pharoah has in his ears to muffle crowd noise? Are they soaked? And with his No. 1 post position, will he have to run in that gully?

"That was crazy," Baffert said. "I didn't know what would happen."

Circumstances forced improvisation upon Victor Espinoza. The jockey explained that with all the rain and the mud and the gully, he decided to send American Pharoah away from the starting gate quickly and for the lead. By darting to the front, they could avoid the muddy kickback and the gully. It represented a dramatic change from the Derby, where Espinoza rated American Pharoah behind the early leaders and moved in the second turn. That approach might have been risky here, and so Espinoza called on the Derby winner immediately.

American Pharoah sprinted through an opening half-mile in 46.49 seconds (about 10 lengths faster than the opening half-mile in the only other race after the rain Saturday). That move prevented anybody from trapping American Pharoah in the gully, down on the fence. And then on the backstretch, where he established a clear advantage, the athletic colt downshifted into a cruising gear, completely relaxed, as if taking in the sights and sounds of Baltimore.

Approaching the second turn, Mr. Z and Divining Rod ran at the leader, who was still cruising along, but they were struggling to get where American Pharoah had gone easily. Feeling the pressure, Espinoza moved his hands, and American Pharoah sprinted away again. Tale of Verve, a 28-1 long shot who was shut out of the Derby, rallied from last to finish second, and Divining Rod held third.

"I didn't even worry about the track conditions," Espinoza said. "I just worried about American Pharoah, the way he was traveling. He's amazing. So much rain we had and so much water, it was insane, but American Pharoah was traveling super.

The Preakness was predictably slow -- 1:58.46 for the 1 3/16 miles. And American Pharoah had everything just the way he likes it. But the manner and style of the achievement, with his ability to go and cruise and then go again, shifting gears immediately on demand, all suggest he just might be the next Triple Crown winner.

If Smarty Jones could have done that, he would have swept Triple Crown in 2004. But once his engine got revved, there was no calming him. If Silver Charm had gotten through a stress-free Preakness, he might have completed a sweep in the 1997 Belmont. But American Pharoah is a different sort. Like them, he's enormously talented, but he can turn the speed off or on in a blink. And he's intelligently poised. Despite the craziness that accompanies the Triple Crown and even during Saturday's stormy conditions, he remained as calm as an oyster.

"He's the sweetest horse of this caliber I've ever been around," Baffert said about American Pharoah. "He's like a pet. ... He's a very smart horse, very intelligent. He's just all class."

That's the difference. He's not necessarily more talented than those 13 horses that stumbled as they reached for the Triple Crown's final gem, but he's probably more poised and possibly smarter than most of them. He has push-button responsiveness because he understands what's being asked of him. And what's being asked now is the hard part.