Baffert’s American Pharoah Impresses

Of all of the impressive Kentucky Derby-age stars that we’ve seen on the track in the Breeders’ Cup Championships and in subsequent races, the most notable member of that generation has not stepped into a starting gate during that stretch of time.

There have been some wonderful performances packed with exciting potential during those weeks, but they have mostly served to enhance the status of American Pharoah, who has been quiet since late October. The missing colt still possesses an excellent chance to take home Thoroughbred racing’s biggest price on Saturday, May 2 in the 141st running of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands at Churchill Downs.

Zayat Stables’ star would have been an odds-on favorite to win the $2 million Sentient Breeders’ Cup Juvenile on Oct. 31 at Santa Anita. But the three-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer has declared his newest star from the Breeders’ Cup race. He has given the son of 2009 Kentucky Derby runner-up Pioneer of the Nile plenty of time to recover.

He has said American Pharoah would return to competition in plenty of time to make the Derby.  And efforts in his absence by horses that found only futility in their efforts to catch Baffert’s star have validated the pre-injury runs by American Pharoah.

American Pharoah won the Grade 1 Frontrunner stakes before being injured.

American Pharoah won the Grade 1 Frontrunner stakes before being injured.

Texas Red is one that tried and failed, but with Baffert’s colt on the sidelines, Texas Red rolled to an emphatic 6 ½-length victory in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile for the Louisiana-bred brother team of trainer and co-owner Keith Desormeaux and three-time Kentucky Derby-winning jockey Kent Desormeaux.

Trainer Peter Miller’s Calculator was still seeking his first career victory when he finished a non-threatening runner-up to American Pharoah in both the Grade I Del Mar Futurity and the Frontrunner.

Yet the horses that could not breathe on Baffert’s star in their previous meetings with Baffert’s star have crushed their opposition while American Pharoah was on the sidelines.

This colt is so good that he looks great even when he’s not running.

But despite the evidence of American Pharoah’s power provided by his once-vanquished foes, the uncertainty surrounding his injury has made the colt what appears to be a  bargain in early betting on the Kentucky Derby, which looms just over 100 days away.

Dortmund, another Baffert favorite and the unbeaten winner of the Grade I Los Alamitos Futurity, ended up as the favored individual horse at 9-1 odds in November’s first of four pari-mutuel pools in Churchill Downs’ 2015 Kentucky Derby Future Wager.  American Pharoah’s odds closed at 12-1.

The most recent Kentucky Derby odds released by Wynn’s Race & Sports Book in Las Vegas also reflect a cautious approach on Baffert’s star.  American Pharaoh is listed at 15-1 in that betting roster, trailing both Dortmund (7-1) and Texas Red (12-1).

For some bettors, the odds will seem too good to be true. “I’ve watched this horse and it’s like a 4-year-old against 2-year-olds,” Stevens said prior to the Breeders’ Cup. “Or maybe it’s like a pro basketball player against high school kids. He has beautiful action, but also the intelligence to go with that athleticism.”

While there’s no word yet from Camp Baffert on a target date for American Pharoah’s return, his comeback will instantly become one of the most important dates on early 2015 racing calendar.

If a bigger and strong American Pharoah should emerge from his winter break – one none the worse for wear from his recovery process – and stablemate Dortmund, an imposing physical specimen still learning the game, continues to improve and develop, Baffert could well have one of the most formidable pre-Kentucky Derby hands in recent years.

But despite his three wins in the Run for the Roses, Baffert understands that winning the race is a multi-level challenge.  His made his Derby debut in 1996 with Cavonnier, who suffered a gut-wrenching loss Grindstone in a race decided in the final stride. Disappointed by undaunted, Baffert  launched a fabulous six-year run that resulted a trio of Derby wins by Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998) and War Emblem (2002).

Baffert knows that, along with the talent and pure physical ability displayed by American Pharoah and Dortmund, another key ingredient is needed if either is to win the sport’s biggest event on Saturday, May 2.

That ingredient is luck, and it cannot be purchased.  It can only be accepted and appreciated.  Still, skill and experience will be key factors for Baffert in both bringing American Pharoah back from the sidelines and continuing the progress of the strapping Dortmund.

In the Kentucky Derby, there are no guarantees.  But Baffert has two colts that, just over 100 days from the big day, appear on everyone’s short list of horses given the best shot to succeed California Chrome as the winner of the Kentucky Derby.  That’s a good, if a bit uneasy, spot for now. VT