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American Pharoah wins Kentucky Derby

Win gives Baffert his fourth Derby crown

American Pharoah (left), ridden by Victor Espinoza, races wide against Firing Line, ridden by Gary Stevens, in turn 4 during the 141st running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on Saturday.Andy Lyons/Getty Images

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — In what was considered one the best groups of 3-year-old colts to contest the Kentucky Derby, American Pharoah stood apart as the 5-2 favorite. It was logical given his record of four victories in five starts, many of them by wide margins in fast times.

“People were talking about a super horse,’’ said his trainer, Bob Baffert. “I read that and I really don’t like it. Now you can say whatever you want.’’

American Pharoah might not have performed like a so-called super horse but he was quite clearly the best horse in the race, winning the 141st Kentucky Derby on Saturday at Churchill Downs by one length in a winning time of 2 minutes, 3.02 seconds before a record crowd of 170,513.


He didn’t have a perfect trip but was able to overcome it. A trip is the racetracker’s term for how a horse proceeds around the track. Was he impeded by other horses in the race? Was he close enough to the rail, which is almost always the place to be?

American Pharoah and jockey Victor Espinoza had to get tough to gain position in the first quarter mile, bumping with Mr. Z, who like American Pharoah is owned by Ahmed Zayat, as Espinoza tried to maneuver closer to the rail. He was still a little wide around the first turn, running outside of Dortmund and Firing Line.

Espinoza was content with his position in third behind the two front-runners, and Baffert had the same feeling as he watched from the grandstand. “It was our Derby to lose after the first turn,’’ he said.

Espinoza tracked Firing Line and Dortmund until the trio rounded the final turn. Then he asked his colt to move to the lead. American Pharoah was gaining ground but was also veering outward and was well out into the center of the track as Firing Line maintained a lead and Dortmund started to surrender.


Espinoza, however, was able to get American Pharoah back in a straight line and the colt drove past Firing Line to hit the finish line one length in front. “I knew I was going to get him,’’ said Espinoza. “Turning for home, I knew I got it.’’

Firing Line grimly held on for second while a weary-looking Dortmund held on for third ahead of the fast-closing Frosted. Those three horses, all based in California, were 1-2-3 in some order for the entire 1¼ miles.

Dortmund, ridden by Martin Garcia, set most of the pace with Firing Line close behind. Garcia was able to keep the pace moderate, getting the first quarter-mile in 23.4 seconds and the half-mile in 47.34. None of the late runners could make up any ground in the stretch.

“Coming for home I thought I might get there but it wasn’t to be,’’ said Firing Line jockey Gary Stevens. “My horse showed his braveness today. He just got beat.’’

As the horses crossed the finish line there was a variety of emotions in the Zayat family box “My wife was really crying, crying, like it really happened [winning the Derby],’’ said Ahmed Zayat. “Then I look at my son, and his girlfriend is holding him and he’s throwing up.’’

Justin was able to laugh about it. “I was just so full of emotion,’’ he said.


Zayat, who came to the United States from Egypt when he was 18, has had great success in racing but tough moments in the Derby with three second-place finishes before finally winning Saturday. The second-place finishers were Bodemeister, Nehro, and Pioneerof the Nile, who just so happens to be the sire of American Pharoah.

“This is for the Zayats,’’ said Baffert. “We’ve suffered with all the seconds, Bodemeister, Pioneerof the Nile, Nehro. We know what it’s like to be completely punched in the face.”

Now, it’s on to the Preakness for Baffert, the Zayats, and their highly touted colt. “There’s a certain aura about him,’’ said Baffert. “He’s caught everyone’s attention.’’

In the post-race news conference Zayat gave great credit to Baffert, saying he has a special connection with his horses. He also said Baffert saw something in American Pharoah early.

“I’ve never seen Bob in the past hype a horse for me,’’ said Zayat. “And day one somehow this horse talked to Bob. And Bob told me, ‘Oh my God, this is something, we’re going to have a lot of fun with this horse.’ He believed, he believed deeply in him.

“I always felt if the horse remained sound he would win the Derby and I’ve never felt that way.’’

Espinoza, who won his second consecutive Derby and third overall, shared the feeling. “He has been a special horse since the first time I rode him,’’ he said. “He has a lot of talent and is an unbelievable horse.’’


For Baffert, it was his fourth Derby victory, tying D. Wayne Lukas and Herbert ‘‘Derby Dick’’ Thompson for second on the career win list. Ben Jones holds the record with five.

It also turned around what had been a pretty miserable two days for him as he saw three favorites go down to defeat in stakes races, including last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Bayern, who finished last in the Churchill Downs Stakes.

Baffert hadn’t won the Derby since 2002, but this year he had the favorite and the second choice in Dortmund. Despite the overall quality of the field, the focus was on him.

“I was on pins and needles all week,’’ he said. “For some reason, the pressure. I just felt a lot of it. It was good pressure but there was a lot of [it]. I knew I had the horses to do it with. When everybody you see says, ‘Oh, Bob, you can’t lose.’ I hate that. I don’t want to hear this. I’m really superstitious about that.’’

The Preakness, Baffert said, is the fun race, one of his favorites. The pressure, however, will mount as the super horse talk continues.

Joe Sullivan can be reached at jtsullivan@globe.com.