It’s a Wrap: American Pharoah Seals an Immortal Derby

Jockey Victor Espinoza thrusts a fist into the air as American Pharoah pulled away at the finish of Kentucky Derby 141. Photo by Reed palmer | Churchill Downs.

Jockey Victor Espinoza thrusts a fist into the air as American Pharoah pulled away at the finish of Kentucky Derby 141. Photo by Reed palmer | Churchill Downs.

Noted pop philosopher Forrest Gump (or more precisely, his Momma) famously stated, “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.”

As tired as you might be of hearing Tom Hanks and countless friends and associates with a Gump impression in their arsenal utter that line, it works for the spectacular Kentucky Derby and Oaks Weekend that just concluded at Churchill Downs.

Spectacular racing, touching stories and staggering numbers ruled the weekend. Total Oaks-Derby attendance reached 294,276 – the first time that number has ever flirted with 300,000. And on Sunday, when hard-working volunteers picked up the last piece of trash those crowds had left, we had a winning Derby colt that again was fueling dreams that he might be the one to end a Triple Crown drought now 36- years-old.

Zayat Racing’s American Pharoah did what a Derby favorite is supposed to do: He put himself in contention against quality opponents, took the challenge to them on the far turn, and got the job done through the 1,234 1/2 from the quarter pole to the finish line.

In doing so, he extended his winning streak to five consecutive major stakes races, gave joyous owner Ahmed Zayat his first Kentucky Derby victory – permanently shaking Zayat’s bridesmaid status on the first Saturday in May – provided trainer Bob Baffert with a fourth Derby win – placing him in a tie for second in all-time Derby triumphs – and made jockey Victor Espinoza just the seventh jockey to win three Kentucky Derbys – and only the sixth to win back-to-back.

Just over 24 hours earlier, the rapidly improving Lovely Maria powered to victory in the Longines Kentucky Oaks, providing a familiar scene when the julep cups were presented to the winners: the smiling “Jones Boys” – trainer J. Larry Jones and owner and former Kentucky Gov. Brereton Jones – beaming. This was their third win at America’s top race for 3-year-old fillies.

And the two days of incredible racing and entertainment left quite an impact on Churchill Downs and the community.

Lovely Maria cruised to victory under jockey Kerwin Clark in the Longines Kentucy Oaks. Photo by Reed palmer | Churchill Downs.

Lovely Maria cruised to victory under jockey Kerwin Clark in the Longines Kentucy Oaks. Photo by Reed palmer | Churchill Downs.

To be transparent, I am employed by Churchill Downs and am paid to say good things. But the jaw-dropping results of a fantastic weekend (kudos and thanks to the Higher Power – or pure luck – that provided us with a pair of glorious spring days), I was left, at least momentarily, with a vocabulary that consisted of one word.

In my 34th consecutive year of working a Derby and Oaks Weekend as a member of the media and, since 1997, a representative of Churchill Downs, a single-syllable, three-letter word said it all for me.

Wow.

As a member of the Churchill Downs team, let me offer the sincerest and loudest possible “thank you” to all in our hometown, our region and beyond, who love the Derby. Because loving the Derby – no matter where you live, or whether you’ve even been beneath the Twin Spires – qualifies as being a part of its success.

My gratitude extends especially to every member of the Churchill Downs team who worked to enhance the experience of every individual in crowd.

The track’s employment grew from about 250 year-round to about 1,000 on a regular racing day to more than 12,000 for the Derby and Oaks. Every employee made this year’s events a personal challenge, and our guests benefited from their incredible efforts.

Although some horses might have turned in disappointing efforts, it’s difficult for me to see any losers. So here’s my list of those who top an endless list of Oaks-Derby Weekend winners.

American Pharoah: The 141st Derby winner had to wear down a pair of high quality opponents in runner-up Firing Line and his Bob Baffert-trained stablemate Dortmund. His time of 2:03.02 was not exceptional, and the trio came home in a slow final quarter that will lead some critics to say this crop of 3-year-olds, heralded pre-Derby as one of the best in recent years if not among the best ever, did not justify the hype.

But for even mild naysayers, it is far too early to assess the true quality of this crop and their Derby performance. That is best viewed in the rear-view mirror.

As for the time, let me mention two names: Sunday Silence and Easy Goer ran 1-2 over a muddy track in a 1989 Derby that had a winning time of 2:05. Though you could have timed their Derby with a sundial (had the sun been shining on a day widely remembered as the last time we saw snowflakes on Derby Day), those two horses are remembered as two of the 20th century’s greatest.

I have a feeling Derby 141’s relatively moderate time could look very good a few months down the road when we see what these horses have accomplished in the interim.

When he won on Saturday, American Pharoah did what the two most recent Derby participants on the male side of his pedigree could not accomplish. Sire Pioneerof the Nile finished second as the Derby favorite to 50-1 longshot winner Mine That Bird in 2009, while his sire, Empire Maker, was the best of his class of 3-year-olds but finished second to Funny Cide in the 2003 Derby.

Although his Derby victory was not a smashing triumph, American Pharoah ran wide, lost ground and still turned back to Firing Line and Dortmund – strong and talented horses. With four consecutive wins coming into the Derby, the only serious question about American Pharoah’s ability was how he would respond to a challenge.

American Pharoah is talented and now a proven fighter. If he improves, we’ll likely be in for an exciting ride over the four and a half weeks in the Triple Crown.

Ahmed Zayat: The owner and breeder of American Pharoah had come achingly close to winning the Derby before his current star entered his life. He watched Pioneerof the Nile, Bodemeister (2011) and Nehro (2012) finish second in the race, and his probable favorite Eskendreya was knocked out of the 2010 Derby by injury.

Zayat and his son Justin, his racing manager, were as ecstatic in their celebration of the victory as any owner in history. Now his colt heads on to the next objective.

Bob Baffert: The Wonder Boy trainer who captured the racing world with rapid-fire Derby wins in ’97, ’98 and ’02 finally earned his fourth after a 13-year break. Baffert admitted this victory felt different from the others, and my guess is that he’s a different person than the one who earned those earlier Derby trophies. He is older and more experienced now, and he realizes how difficult it is to win this race. He also had a brush with mortality three years ago when he suffered a heart attack on a flight to Dubai. And that experience – along with the presence of 10-year-old son Bode, whom he clearly adores – has given perspective to his success.

Baffert’s three previous Derby winners – Silver Charm, Real Quiet and War Emblem – each won the first two legs of the Triple Crown but missed in the Belmont Stakes. The perspective, experience and balance now in Baffert’s life could help get him over the top.

Victor Espinoza: With his second consecutive Derby win, Espinoza became just the seventh jockey with three Derby victories and only the sixth with back-to-back wins. He also participated in the first winner’s circle spray of champagne from new Kentucky Derby and Churchill Downs partner G.H. Mumm – and was gleeful in doing so. I’m thinking that’s an instant Derby tradition. It added even more smiles to an already joyous celebration.

The Jones Boys: Trainer J. Larry Jones and owner/breeder Brereton Jones have placed a strong personal stamp on the Oaks with a partnership that produced this year’s winner Lovely Maria, along with Oaks winners Believe You Can (2012) and Proud Spell (2008).

Larry Jones’ 2015 triumph came just months after he suffered a head injury when he fell from a horse during training. Despite that brush with danger, he was back in the saddle, galloping Lovely Maria – and third-place Oaks finisher I’m A Chatterbox – in the days leading up to Friday’s big race.

Jones’ doctor protested when the Hopkinsville, Ky., native informed him of plans to return to the saddle.

“It’s not the riding that’s the problem,” Jones countered. “It’s the fallin.”

Let’s hope Larry Jones keeps riding for a long time. He has three Oaks wins and a runner-up Derby finish on his resume. It would be a wonderful thing to see him sniffing roses one of these days.

Kerwin Clark and Gary Stevens: Two veteran jockeys whose careers have been vastly different were in the spotlight with remarkable performances on Derby Weekend. Clark, known as “Boo Boo” to friends and fans, won his first Oaks aboard Lovely Maria. Clark, a solid rider in Louisiana and the Midwest, achieved that milestone at the age of 56, one month after he scored the first Grade I triumph of his career aboard the same filly in Keeneland’s Ashland.

Stevens, 52, must have been able to smell the Derby’s roses when he surged to the lead in the stretch aboard Firing Line. The Hall of Famer and three-time Derby winner fell just short of grabbing his fourth win, but his ride was perfect, and Firing Line will be back.

Travis Stone: Churchill Downs’ new announcer is just the eighth in the history of the Derby, but you would never know he was calling his first. His call was a wonderfully precise and energetic.

The kid can only get better after a spectacular start, and I’m hoping Travis will be in the booth for a long time.

John Asher: A man who had such celebrated difficulty in picking a Derby winner not only got American Pharoah home, but his standard daily weather forecast of sunny and 75 degrees at Churchill Downs was right on the money.

Wow, indeed. Now start the countdown to May, 7 2016, and Kentucky Derby 142. VT