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May 08, 2015

Let the Triple Crown madness begin for American Pharoah

By: By Jeff Frank, The Sports Analyst

 Philadelphia, PA ( - All three of Bob Baffert's prior Kentucky Derby winners - Silver Charm, Real Quiet and War Emblem - won the Preakness. Can American Pharoah join that exclusive club at Pimlico on May 16?

American Pharoah won as the 5-2 favorite at Churchill Downs last Saturday. Six other favorites have taken down the Kentucky Derby since 2000: Fusaichi Pegasus (2000), Smarty Jones (2004), Street Sense (2007), Big Brown (2008), Orb (2013) and California Chrome (2014).

Three of those six horses went on to win the Preakness while three others failed. It might just be a massive coincidence but all three Preakness winners were close to the pace in the Derby and all three losers came from well off the pace on the first Saturday in May.

The three winners - Smarty Jones, Big Brown and California Chrome - all were two lengths or closer from the leader after the first quarter-mile in the Derby. On the other hand, the three losers - Fusaichi Pegasus, Street Sense and Orb - all were at least 10 lengths behind at the same spot. As for American Pharoah, he was just over one length behind Dortmund after the first quarter-mile.

Based on those numbers, it appears American Pharoah has an excellent chance to go to New York as a Triple Crown contender.

One other important question remains: Why has it been so easy in recent years, as opposed to the 1980s and early 1990s, for a Kentucky Derby winner to win the Preakness?

Since Affirmed cashed in on the last Triple Crown in 1978, a total of 13 horses won both the Derby and Preakness. Four of them came in the first 18 years while a whopping nine won both races over the last 18 years. That second number is an astounding 50 percent hit!

Those first 18 years saw the Kentucky Derby favorite (or second-choice) win the Run for the Roses seven times while the average number of Kentucky Derby starters moving on to the Preakness was six.

The most recent 18 years saw the Kentucky Derby favorite (or second-choice) win the Run for the Roses nine times while the average number of Kentucky Derby starters moving on to the Preakness was just four.

Two fewer horses might not sound like much but it makes a huge difference, particularly since new shooters rarely win the Preakness. Since 1983, only Red Bullet (2000), Bernardini (2006) and Rachel Alexandra (2009) have taken horse racing's middle jewel.

Along those lines, only four of the last 18 runnings of the Preakness had more starters from the Kentucky Derby than new shooters. On the other hand, 13 of 18 runnings between 1979 and 1996 had more starters (or an equal number) come from the Derby than from other races.

Another reason why there have been more Triple Crown hopefuls in recent years comes from the lack of Kentucky Derby in-the-money finishers running in the Preakness.

Between 1979 and 1996, second-place Kentucky Derby finishers ran in the Preakness 13 times (72 percent), while third-place finisher ran 14 times (78 percent).

However, between 1997 and 2014, second-place finishers ran in the Preakness just nine times (50 percent), while third-place finishers ran 11 times (61 percent).

This year is a bit different as both Firing Line (second-place in the Derby) and Dortmund (third-place) are scheduled to face American Pharoah in Baltimore. If that comes to fruition, it would be the first time since 2009 the second- and third-place finishers tackled the Derby winner in the Preakness. The reason it occurred then was due to Mine That Bird's improbable Derby victory at 50-1.

The last time the favorite won the Derby and went on to the Preakness to meet the second- and third-place finishers was 2007 when Curlin got the best of Street Sense at Old Hilltop.


American Pharoah was the third consecutive favorite to win the Kentucky Derby following in the hoofsteps of Orb (2013) and California Chrome (2014). Orb was unable to return to the winner's circle in the Preakness at 3-5 odds but California Chrome proved best as the heavy 1-2 favorite.

Last year, just two Kentucky Derby also-rans (Ride On Curlin and General A Rod) competed against California Chrome along with seven new shooters. Two years ago, five other Derby starters besides Orb went to the Preakness along with just three new shooters.

As of this writing, only Firing Line and Dortmund are expected to bounce back in two weeks to challenge American Pharoah. Danzig Moon (fifth in Kentucky Derby), Materiality (sixth), Carpe Diem (10th) and Mr. Z (13th) are the only other four Derby starters with a chance of turning the tables on American Pharoah.

Four possible new shooters are Stanford, Divining Rod, Bodhisattva and Competitive Edge.

Stanford finished second to the recently injured International Star in the Louisiana Derby last time out, while Divining Rod sat a perfect trip behind the two speeds to win the Lexington Stakes on April 11.

Bodhisattva won on the lead over the Pimlico surface taking the Federico Tesio Stakes seven days after the Lexington, while Competitive Edge remained unbeaten prevailing in the Pat Day Mile on Derby Day at Churchill Downs.

It will be interesting to see which of those 11 horses enter the 140th running of the Preakness, especially since Todd Pletcher trains four of them.

Pletcher's Preakness resume is both similar and different from his Derby dossier. His Kentucky Derby record is well known - one victory in 43 starts. Nevertheless, that 0.02 winning percentage is better than his 0.0 winning percentage in the Preakness.

The major difference for Pletcher is the total number of runners as he has started, just seven horses in the Preakness and none since finishing fifth with Dance City in 2011.

On the other hand, Bob Baffert has owned the Preakness. Not only has the silver-haired trainer won it five times, but as mentioned earlier, all three of his Kentucky Derby winners also won the Preakness. One more victory and Baffert joins D. Wayne Lukas for second-place, one win behind R. Wyndham Walden, whose seven Preakness victories came in the 19th century.

American Pharoah already has proven he can beat both Firing Line and Dortmund, and outside of Competitive Edge, whose past performances are very similar to Bernardini (who upset the ill-fated Barbaro in 2006), it appears the rest of the new shooters are severely outclassed

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