By Jonathan Stettin
One of the most anticipated Kentucky Derbies in years is in the books, and the horse with the misspelled name, who garnered the lion’s share of the hype and money, got the roses. American Pharoah delivered on the promise he showed early on, and on the dreams of his owner breeders, Ahmed and Justin Zayat and took the race in game fashion as the 5-2 betting favorite. He won a stretch long battle with runner up Firing Line, who was hanging tough until the very end when he could no longer match strides with the new king.
Turning for home there were four horses in the race, but one was already showing signs of tiring, and another was rallying from what seemed to be too far back, considering the slow pace that dictated the race. Dortmund, who set modest fractions for The Kentucky Derby, was pretty much done when they hit the stretch. He hung in as best he could and held on for third. Frosted was rallying wide on the far turn but left himself too much to do given the splits put up by Dortmund. The race was really between Firing Line and American Pharoah at that point and both horses and riders knew it. American Pharoah had a wide trip, partially due to his post draw of 18. Turning for home he went wider than he had to, and rider Victor Espinoza went to the whip early, hard, and often for The Derby. He drew abreast of Firing Line at the top of the stretch, and under a heavy Espinoza whip fought it out with him to the wire, edging away late.
After establishing themselves major players in The Kentucky Derby early in their racing careers, The Zayats got their first winner, and did it with a homebred they knew was special and they believed in early on. That makes it so much more special for them, as do the tough beats they faced with class in prior runnings when second with Nehro, Pioneer of the Nile, (American Pharoah’s sire) and Bodemeister. It was no surprise they were as gracious in victory as they had been in defeat.
Any good handicapper, or student of the game, knows watching these races are learning experiences to be capitalized on later. With that let’s get to the takeaways. There were quite a few good ones.
While true the pace was relatively slow for The Derby, the track wasn’t exactly lightning fast either. All too often we see the tracks souped up on big days producing fast times and often favoring speed. That was not the case this past weekend at Churchill Downs. The track played very fair, and horses could win from anywhere and did. There were plenty of accomplished and fast horses who ran over the weekend. None lit up the tele timer with a particularly fast race or even fast fractions. Considering that, I would not downgrade American Pharoah’s performance as much as some. The final time of 2.03.02 is not going to break any records but again the pace was on the slow side as was the track. It should also be noted American Pharoah was wide on both turns, and at the end of the race had covered 29 more feet than runner up Firing Line.
Although I expected both a fast and contested pace, I never expected a meltdown as many did. Quality speed doesn’t come back, even off fast splits, and off modest ones it figured to hold. This created the merry go round race we saw with the 1,2,3 pace setters literally leading all the way around. This was a disadvantage for the closers, especially the deep ones. Frosted ran particularly well. He was far back early, several lengths off the pace. He made a big wide move on the turn and was actually wider than American Pharoah. He ran 36 feet further than the winner. Had the pace developed like several previous Kentucky Derbies, Frosted would have been a lot closer, and may have threatened for the win. He ran an “A” race.
Materiality ran huge. There is no way to gauge how he would have performed had he drawn an outside post, or if he broke well. Materiality broke poorly from the inside and was shuffled back pretty far. He took an awful lot of dirt and bouncing around for such a lightly raced and inexperienced horse. He closed well after all that and it would have been reasonable for him to just pack it in. He didn’t. This is a much more talented colt than he was given credit for going into the race. I was surprised when John Velasquez chose Carpe Diem over him and voiced I thought it was a mistake. I still think so. Materiality could have threatened the Apollo curse had things broken right.
Gary Stevens continues to pad what is the greatest comeback by a jockey and one of the greatest comebacks in sports altogether. Past the Wire wrote two articles on this historic achievement but Gary just keeps on going. You can read about this epic comeback here, How Gary Stevens One-Upped The Greatest Comeback In Sports and A Matter of Time. I originally thought Firing Line was a cut below the best of the division. I began second guessing myself when I saw how quietly confidant Gary Stevens was. I am not one to put much weight into another’s opinion on the possible outcome of a horserace. That goes for anyone really, trainer, rider, or another handicapper. I’ve been at this long enough, and successful enough to count on my own studies. After all, one of my favorite quotes in racing was made by the late, great Eddie Arcaro. When asked during an interview what he would have liked to have done had he not been a jockey, Eddie thought for a moment, smiled and said, “I would have liked to have been the bookie in the jocks room”.
I do, however, know enough that, when someone with an opinion like Gary Stevens is smiling ear to ear while watching and helping his mount get ready for The Kentucky Derby, to pay attention. When I looked at the Ragozin pattern on Firing Line, the smile made more sense. Firing Line had a great pattern on the sheets. He was brought to the race expertly by young trainer Simon Callahan. Gary showed that cool confidence in his pre-race NBC interview. Any good poker player would have spotted it. The horse was live. Firing Line came up a tad short but ran great.
You really have to trust your own eyes. I tried to tell anyone who’d listen, Upstart couldn’t win the Kentucky Derby. I thought he was going the wrong way and he was. He looked tired in both his Florida starts and his last work. He got sick and missed some training on top of that. I couldn’t understand how anyone who saw his Florida races thought he could win the run for the roses.
Another obvious toss was Mubtaarhij. This horse was flat out too slow to contend. True his UAE Derby was pretty to look at but the number came back slow and that doesn’t lie. It didn’t really matter who his trainer was, he wasn’t fast enough to contend. Lasix may have moved him up, but he wasn’t getting it.
Most people will tell you American Pharoah will carry the same 126 pounds in The Preakness that he carried in The Derby. Well maybe, but there is also the added weight of being the only horse live for the ever so elusive Triple Crown. I was fortunate enough to see three of them, Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed. It can be done and will be done again. Funny thing is, back then they used to talk about making it harder as too many horses were doing it in the seventies. Leave it alone, it’s history, and it will happen.
Kerwin Boo Boo Clark, for getting the biggest win of his career in The Kentucky Oaks. Gary Stevens for a great ride and effort in The Derby and adding to The Comeback. Simon Callahan for doing a fine job prepping Firing Line.
Ahmed and Justin Zayat, for breeding and racing the winner of the 141st Kentucky Derby. Victor Espinoza for taking the roses back to back years. Not too bad a ride in The Woodford Reserve either. Brian Beach for handing Victor’s book as good as any in the biz.
NBC. First off the camera angle was terrible. You had to rely on Larry Collmus to know who was where. Second exactly who do they think watches this show anyway?
Any and all members of the media who knew Dortmund colicked pre Derby and didn’t report it. It makes more sense now why he tired off the slow splits. We talk about transparency and for the good of the game. You guys write whether California Chrome looked right or left following a bath and not one thought to mention this. Maybe you thought there would be backlash on whether he should run or maybe you don’t truly know Derby news. Either way big low five.