Kentucky Derby win raises expectations for American Pharoah

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Trainer Bob Baffert barely had 14 hours to digest his Kentucky Derby victory with American Pharoah before hearing the inevitable question.

Does his horse have what it takes to win the Triple Crown?

“Well, we’ve got to get to the Preakness first,” an admittedly tired Baffert said Sunday, referring to the 1 3/16-mile race May 16 in Baltimore. “I don’t even think about that yet.”

The question seems somewhat premature, but it isn’t totally farfetched considering American Pharoah earned a signature victory that answered questions about his resume.

Saturday’s one-length victory over Firing Line — with Baffert-trained Dortmund finishing third — before a record crowd of 170,513 at Churchill Downs was his fifth in six career starts.

“He’s competitive, he wants to win,” Baffert said after parading American Pharoah around a phalanx of clicking cameras. “He knows he’s special.”

Unlike his runaway eight-length victory in the Arkansas Derby tuneup that made him the favorite in the Run for the Roses, American Pharoah proved his worth against tougher competition. He was part of the lead pack in the 18-horse field before surging ahead in the stretch and pulling away from Firing Line with Dortmund two lengths behind him.

The Kentucky-bred, California-based colt is the third straight Derby favorite to win, immediately sparking discussion of whether he can be the first Triple Crown champion since Affirmed in 1978. California Chrome made a strong push to end the drought by winning the first two legs before stumbling at the start and finishing fourth in the Belmont Stakes last year.

Hall of Famer Baffert is well aware of the history and ultimately could have a say in whether it continues or ends after his two horses went 1-3 in the Derby. For now, he just wanted to let his fourth Derby win sink in.

“If you look back at all the Triple Crown runners, they ran a lot,” Baffert said. “I think a lot has to do with who you are running against and how tough it is. This was such a tough Derby.”

The Triple Crown schedule only gets tougher with two more races over the next five weeks, a daunting docket for horses accustomed to running once a month. Baffert said that American Pharoah and Dortmund emerged from the Derby in good shape and will spend this week at Churchill Downs before heading to Baltimore.

Dortmund is showing just as much potential to knock off American Pharoah. Baffert hinted that owner Kaleem Shah might “want a little revenge” and said he planned to talk with him.

“If Pharoah is that good, he’s going to have to run hard,” Baffert said. “Right now I would say if all’s well (Dortmund would run); and Dortmund looked good.”

A few barns away, Firing Line trainer Simon Callaghan reflected on his horse’s strong effort with Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens aboard and impressive condition afterward.

But as Callaghan praised Firing Line and a likely Preakness run, he acknowledged American Pharoah as the probable favorite because Derby winners have a tendency to raise hopes that way.

“It’s going to be close,” Callaghan said. “We figure we’ve got a chance of beating him, but he’s going to be favored. We’ll see.”

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