Kentucky Derby Review 2015: Mexican’s American dream

Victor EspinozaAmerican Pharoah dug deep to beat the battling Firing Line by a length in the 141st Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. He started as the near 3/1 favorite, paying $7.80 to a $2 bet. American Pharoah gave his trainer Bob Baffert a fourth Kentucky Derby win and his jockey Victor Espinoza (pictured) his third. For his owner and breeder, the Egyptian-born Ahmed Zayat, it was a long overdue first success in the Run for the Roses.

Beforehand Baffert seemed pretty sure that he would gain his first victory since War Emblem in 2002. He admitted he felt ‘real confident’ going into the race. He also trained the second favorite, Dortmund. Standing at over 17 hands, the giant of a horse had won all of his six races, including the Santa Anita Derby. He was beaten three lengths by his stablemate into third.

California-based horses filled the first three places. Firing Line was trained by Simon Callaghan who had moved to the Golden State from Newmarket in the UK. Callaghan was delighted and surprised to get so close to the winner. Ridden by Gary Stevens, Firing Line had been narrowly beaten twice by Dortmund. Frosted finished a neck behind Dortmund, staying on strongly to take fourth place under Joel Rosario.

The luckiest Mexican on earth

American Pharoah’s success made it two in a row for Espinoza – he had ridden California Chrome to victory at Churchill Downs in 2014 for Art Sherman. Espinoza said he was the ‘luckiest Mexican on earth’ after this win. He thought American Pharoah had been ‘special’ ever since the day he first rode him and that he was ‘an unbelievable horse’.

A tough fight for Pharoah   

Espinoza had cruised home on California Chrome but had to work hard for this victory. Dortmund, ridden by Martin Garcia from stall seven, broke better than his stablemate from stall 15. Dortmund set the pace covering the first half mile in an easy 47.3 seconds. Firing Line was just wide of him in second forcing American Pharoah to run three wide in third.

Dortmund kept the lead until Firing Line outpaced him on the final turn. American Pharoah ran very wide and had to show real grit to get past the persistent Firing Line. It was the first time that Espinoza had had to ride American Pharaoh hard. Espinoza seemed surprised that he could not just ‘blow Firing Line away’. He had never been in such a tough fight before and used his whip more than 40 times.

Espinoza became only the second jockey, alongside Calvin Borel, to win consecutive Kentucky Derbys in the past 30 years. His horse achieved something special too. American Pharoah became only the second two-year-old champion to win the Kentucky Derby in 35 years.

It was not the fastest run race at 2 minutes 3.2 seconds. The pacesetter Materialise was slow out of the stalls and had nowhere to go. Dortmund eased into the lead and set steady fractions. The racetrack had got slower during the day.

Victory at last for Zayat

After American Pharoah’s victory Ahmed Zayat was emotional, explaining: ‘I’m speechless. We are extremely thrilled and honoured. This is a dream come true. We are just beyond blessed. Thank god for good horses. It’s a fantasy moment for us.’

His words were well chosen. Until 2015, the Kentucky Derby had been an unlucky race for Zayat. He owned and bred American Pharoah’s sire, Pioneerof The Nile, the runner-up in 2009. Trained by Baffert, Pioneerof The Nile looked the likely winner turning into the stretch. He was denied victory by a 50/1 shot in the Kentucky Derby betting that year, Mine That Bird, who benefited from a typical Calvin Borel exaggerated hold-up ride.

In 2010 Zayat owned the long term Kentucky Derby favorite, Eskendereya, trained by Todd Pletcher. Eskendereya suffered an injury that ended his career on the racetrack less than a week before the big race.

Steven Asmussen trained Zayat’s 2011 Churchill Downs contender, Nehro. This son of Mineshaft was a $170,000 purchase as a yearling at Keenelands. Nehro started as the second favorite and finished second. Graham Motion’s strong finishing Animal Kingdom beat him by nearly three lengths for Team Valor.

Baffert also saddled the 2012 Kentucky Derby favorite, Bodemeister, for Zayat. Zayat paid $260,000 for him as a yearling, and named him after Baffert’s son Bodie. He broke well under Mike Smith and led the pack all the way to the wire – setting insane fractions – where Doug O’Neill’s I’ll Have Another got his head in front to win by a neck. It was not the first time Mike Smith had gone mad in front.

American Pharoah overcame not only his owner’s frustrating record at Churchill Downs but his family’s history there too. Both his sire and grandsire, Empire Maker, had finished second in the Run for the Roses.

Pharoah takes the Triple Crown

After his Kentucky Derby win American Pharoah went on to show the world just how exceptional he was by taking the Triple Crown. Only at Churchill Downs was he strongly challenged. In the Preakness he soon took the lead and won in his usual easy style, beating Tale Of Verve by seven lengths. Firing Line, who had pushed him so hard last time, finished tailed off with only one horse behind him.

It was a similar story at Belmont Park. Espinoza made all and won easily, beating Frosted by five and a half lengths. American Pharoah became the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed back in 1978 and the twelfth horse to achieve the accolade.

Unlike other Triple Crown winners, American Pharoah went on to prove he was pretty tough as well as extremely talented. He won his next start in early August in the Haskell at Monmouth Park. Espinoza was able to ease him clear of Dale Romans’ Keen Ice without moving a muscle to win by two lengths.

His dream run of eight consecutive wins came to an end on August 29 in the Travers Stakes at Saratoga. American Pharoah fought off a strong challenge from Frosted but was eventually overcome by the relentless late run of Keen Ice. He was beaten by three quarters of a length.

American Pharoah has already proved himself to the world on the racetrack but he is also a star away from it. Zayat thought he had the friendliest nature of any colt he had ever encountered. He could pet him without fear of being bitten and even cuddle him.

That friendly nature may also be the reason that American Pharoah has only half a tail. If you are wondering what happened to the rest of it, Mr Z (also owned by Zayat) is the key suspect. Zayat believes that the more aggressive Mr Z bit it off when they were sharing a barn as youngsters.  American Pharoah was too sweet natured to retaliate. Fortunately Mr Z could not get close enough to take another bite on the racetrack.