BALTIMORE - Amid a storm of Biblical proportions, American Pharoah splashed through a sea of mud that swallowed up seven spattered pursuers. His seven-length runaway in Saturday's Preakness Stakes sends him to Long Island with a shot at the first Triple Crown since 1978.
About 15 minutes before post time, a downpour soaked Pimlico. It was as if the racing gods were giving the heavy favorite an extra edge, as if he needed one. The field's only horse to have won on a sloppy surface, the powerful bay colt was the undisputed monarch of the Maryland muck.
The record crowd of 131,680 knew it had seen something special.
"American Pharoah, from day one, people were expecting this," trainer Bob Baffert said. "With the weather, I was getting a little leery, but great horses do great things, and he showed that today."
After he broke outward from the rail, Victor Espinoza gunned him to the lead. Immediately he was pressured by long shot Mr. Z, whom winning owner Ahmed Zayat sold Wednesday. American Pha-roah set solid fractions -- 46.49 seconds for a half-mile, 1:11.42 for 6 furlongs, 1:37.74 for a mile -- and never looked in danger of being caught. The son of Pioneerof the Nile ran 1 3/16 miles in 1:58.46 in the first Preakness run in slop since 1983.
Espinoza gave him a breather before asking him to accelerate in upper stretch, and the race was over in a few strides. Tale of Verve, a 28-1 shot, rallied late to take second from a weaving Divining Rod. Dortmund, also trained by Baffert, was fourth, followed by Mr. Z, Danzig Moon, 3-1 second favorite Firing Line and Bodhisattva.
"It went very well," Espinoza said. "He bounced out of there. He broke a tiny bit slow and I pushed him to the front. As soon as I took the lead, that was it. He was very comfortable cruising around at a high speed."
Baffert's sixth Preakness victory ties him with D. Wayne Lukas for second, one behind 19th century trainer R.W. Walden. For a record fourth time, Baffert has a chance to sweep the 3-year-old classics. It will be Espinoza's third opportunity, also a record. "Hopefully," the 42-year-old Mexican said, "the third time will be the lucky charm."
American Pharoah paid $3.80 for his sixth consecutive win, all in graded stakes, by a combined 30 1/4 lengths. He improved to 6-for-7 and earned $900,000 of the $1.5-million purse, raising his total to $3,730,300 for Zayat, who bred him.
There was far more drama in the hour before the gates opened than after they did. At 5:29, lightning flashed, and light rain began at 5:53. At 6:06, the infield was evacuated, and at 6:13, sheets of rain made the backstretch nearly invisible.
"That storm, I've never seen anything like it," Baffert said. "The TV showed a river running along the rail, and I wondered how American Pharoah would react to that."
Espinoza said, "I was mainly worried about water getting in my boots."
There were moments when it seemed the race would be delayed. Sal Sinatra, vice president and general manager of the Maryland Jockey Club, said: "We were looking at the weather radar, and nothing indicated that the conditions would deteriorate further."
The maligned, 1-for-7 Tale of Verve handed exacta players a $124.40 payoff. It was the third consecutive year trainer Dallas Stewart ran second with a Triple Crown bomb, joining Derby runners-up Golden Soul and Commanding Curve.
By far the biggest disappointment was Firing Line. After losing the Derby by a length, he showed nothing and plodded in 45 lengths behind.
Baffert won the 2001 Belmont Stakes with Point Given, but the 1 1/2-mile "Test of the Champion" has tormented him. He narrowly lost Triple Crown bids with Silver Charm (1997) and Real Quiet (1998), and War Emblem was far back in 2002. On June 6, the 62-year-old Hall of Famer will get another shot.
"I want to enjoy this right now," Baffert said. "It's tough up there, and I don't want to think about it for a couple weeks. I know [trainers] are up there sharpening their knives, getting ready for us."
To which Zayat added: "Bring it on."