A Stampede: Running scared of American Pharoah

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American Pharoah did not overwhelm the Kentucky Derby.  He won by one length in 2:03.02 on a fast track.  That’s below average time for the 1 ¼-mile race.  Far more spectacular was Competitive Edge winning the undercard Pat Day Mile in 1:34.18, a stakes record at the most historic of tracks.  

Competitive Edge was to be a contender in Saturday’s 140th Preakness Stakes (NBC, 6:18 ET).   But Todd Pletcher, America’s winningest thoroughbred trainer for the past four years, decided not to enter him.  Or his barnmate,  Materiality, the strongest Derby finisher.

Pletcher also pulled Carpe Diem, whom he considered his best 3-year-old.  He decided to bypass Baltimore, which was looking to its iconic horse race, albeit at crumbling Pimlico in a seething neighborhood, to underscore recovery from its recent siege of rioting and destruction.

A year ago, California Chrome owner Steve Coburn infamously decried  “the coward’s way out” – skipping the Preakness to focus on the 1 ½-mile Belmont, the most grueling of Triple Crown stakes.  His horse won the first two only to be denied the triple by Tonalist, who, unbeknown to Coburn, had a doctor’s excuse for bailing on the Preakness.

Pletcher’s horses aren’t injured.  “I just think two weeks is too risky,” he said, referring to the narrow gap between the Derby and Preakness.

He’s doing what’s best for his horses, giving them more time off before another race.  But he ruined the Preakness.  I see little hope for Firing Line and Dortmund, 2-3 in the Derby, turning any tables on American Pharoah.  Recall them wilting at the sight of him in the Churchill Downs stretch.

Granted, Dortmund, who was unbeaten, 6-for-6, was not at his best in Louisville, kidney-sweating slightly.  But even when fit as a Stradivarius, he’s not Bob Baffert’s best 3-year-old, and everyone in that barn, two-legged and four-legged, knows it.

The reason Pletcher is not challenging Pharoah is that he doesn’t think he can beat him this week.  Vegas bookies agreed.  They had Materiality, Competitive Edge and Carpe Diem as 15-1 longshots to win the Preakness.

Hall of Fame trainer Wayne Lukas, who hopes to win the Maryland Lottery with No. 3, Mr. Z, said of the Derby winner: “I have not been that impressed with a horse in a long time. . . In terms of conformation, just standing there, he doesn’t blow you away.  But when he moves, goes full flight, he’s got an amazing stride.”

Even so, there’s reason to doubt him at the 4/5 morning line.  His final quarter-mile of 26.7 seconds in the Derby showed him tiring, along with Firing Line and Dortmund.  All three will appreciate the Run for the Painted-Black-Eyed Susans being 1/16 of a mile shorter than the one for the roses.

That fade suggests vulnerability in the Belmont and does support Pletcher’s decision to attack there with Florida Derby winner Materiality, who rallied from a grievous start to close five lengths in the Derby stretch and finish 6th.

Pletcher’s exodus leaves the Preakness with eight starters, including a respectable “new shooter” who didn’t qualify for the Derby but is rested and pointed for this.  Divining Rod is a late bloomer who won the 1 1/16-mile Lexington Stakes by 3 lengths April 11.  His trainer, Arnaud Delacour, said, “He’s matured quite a bit.  He understands now what’s going on.”

With little pace left in this shriveled field, Divining Rod will gun for the front from his 7th post.  He could get an easy trip with superjock Javier Castellano.  Until Victor Espinoza taps American Pharoah and loosens his reins.  

For me, a racehorse as fine as Pharoah is always worth viewing.  However, as a bet this Preakness is uninspiring.  No. 1 is almost a lock, so I’d bet him at 4/5 but no worse, which I expect he’ll be.  I’d have gladly played the Edge at 15-1, even 12-1.  Thanks, Mr. Pletcher. Maybe you can say a prayer for Baltimore, a most historic city that nowadays can’t get a break.


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