Itâ€™s a sport in which the highest of hopes can be dashed in flash, so that low hum you might have heard early Saturday evening could well have been the whoosh of a collective breath exhaled by Kentucky Derby fans across the land.
The sound of sweet relief started to swell in the homestretch at Oaklawn Park as Zayat Stablesâ€™ reigning 2-year-old champion American Pharoah returned to the races for the first time since late September.Â He came back with a splash in both literal and figurative terms.
The Bob Baffert-trained son of Pioneer of the Nile came out of the starting gate at soggy Oaklawn Park a little sideways â€“ displacing a shoe in the process â€“ but that was his last anxious moment as American Pharoah cruised to the lead against overmatched foes in the 1 1/16-mile â€œRoad to the Kentucky Derbyâ€ stop that was his first race in nearly six months.
He powered home under two-time Kentucky Derby-winning jockey Victor Espinoza to win his anticipating outing by 6 Â¼ lengths over a sloppy surface. So the champ not only got the win in his anticipated return, he also proved adept on a wet racing surface in his first test over the goo.
The victory was American Pharoahâ€™s third consecutive romp against stakes foes following a poor outing in his career debut last summer. He was so dominant in a pair of Grade I stakes victories that he was voted champion of his age group despite an injury that knocked him out of the Breedersâ€™ Cup Juvenile.
The victory does not mean he will win the Kentucky Derby. He has yet to be seriously tested during his win streak and thereâ€™s a chance that Baffert has a better Kentucky Derby candidate in his barn in the unbeaten Dortmund. He is expected to have one more race before a trip to Louisville for the Derby, and even another romp there would leave plenty of questions that he would need to answer over a mile and a quarter at Churchill Downs.
But American Pharoahâ€™s win after such a long time away from competition gave racing fans a degree of confidence that Baffertâ€™s star could still prove that he is or can be as good as last yearâ€™s stirring efforts promised that he might be.
The victory by American Pharoah in the Rebel was Baffertâ€™s fifth in six years, and chances appear good that he will return to Oaklawn Park on April 11 to make the Grade I Arkansas Derby his final prep race for the Run for the Roses on May 2 at Churchill Downs.
Despite his dazzling return to racing, American Pharoah remains second to recent Tampa Bay Derby winner Carpe Diem in my Kentucky Derby top 10 in the â€œExpert Picksâ€ section of the official Kentucky Derby 141 event page. You can find thoughts by several Churchill Downs handicappers at kentuckyderby.com/racing-wagering/expert-picks.
It was also a notable weekend for Texas Red, the runaway winner of the Breedersâ€™ Cup Juvenile who has been on the sidelines due to injury since early February. Texas Red had an easy half-mile work last Saturday at Santa Anita and is scheduled to work again this Saturday.
Thoughts and prayers go out to the family of former Churchill Downs General Manager Danny Parkerson, who died following an illness on March 13 at Sts. Mary and Elizabeth Hospital. He was 72.
A man with a ready smile, Parkerson started a career that spanned four decades with an entry-level post in the trackâ€™s greenhouse. He kept moving forward and in 1991 was named general manager, a post once held by Churchill Downs and Kentucky Derby legend Col. Matt Winn.Â Â
His long career concluded when Parkerson retired on Dec.31, 2000. VT