“American Pharoah will dictate his own terms.”–Oaklawn Park Track Announcer Frank Mirahmadi
In some ways, that’s all you need to know about yesterday’s Rebel Stakes that became the royal 2015 coming out party for American Pharoah. I’ve tried to come up with just the right superlatives to do this race and his effort justice. Really, only one word is needed: Perfection! And I’ll add a delight for the eyes.
First, let’s set the scene. It was going to be plenty enough for American Pharoah to just have a good race, win, and go from 10 to 60 points to move up (and into the gate) in the Kentucky Derby points standings. He hadn’t raced since September 27, 2014, although he’d been in training up until the final days preceding the Breeders’ Cup last October when something went south with a hoof and he was scratched out of the Juvenile.
But as is its wont this time of year, Oaklawn Park threw in an added curve: a wet track. Hopes from earlier in the day that the track would go from “good” to “fast” were dashed by a late afternoon Hot Springs shower so that at post time for the Rebel the track was officially “sloppy.” Great. All American Pharoah has seen, being based in California, is a dry, fast track. So could he handle off going? Basically, horses either do or don’t and when they don’t it can be ugly despite their inherent talent. Mucho Macho Man is a great recent example of a Thoroughbred who could throw stellar performances (including a gutty win in the 2013 Breeders’ Cup Classic), but put him on a muddy course he’d falter dramatically.
Given the conditions, my personal hope was that he’d jump to the lead and not look back. That looked even dicier as he stumbled ever so briefly as the gate opened. No worries. With ears pricked and what looked like sheer joy to be back running, American Pharoah was indeed promptly in front and his body language screamed “Follow me boys and catch me if you can!”
They couldn’t. Not. Even. Close. With that same smooth, even, rhythmic, bounding stride he’s been demonstrating in his morning works, American Pharaoh literally skipped over the slop, led every step of the race and as he and Victor Espinoza completed the turn for home, he lowered his head and lengthened that glorious stride to open on the field to win the Rebel by six-plus lengths. His “effort” in this race was actually effortless. This colt appears to be perfectly balanced with an exceptionally efficient stride. His mechanics are flawless and that’s what makes what he does on the track look so very easy and like he’s barely working when in reality he’s moving very fast and covering a lot of ground.
Two of our most beloved and successful Thoroughbreds–John Henry and Cigar–were evaluated on their gait/stride efficiency. On a scale where 100 is perfect, John and Cigar rated very high 90s; in the 95-97 percent range. My guess is if AP were evaluated he’d rank right in there with those two greats, I’d say just watching him about a 96. Needless to say, this kind of racehorse doesn’t show up every day. They are born this way, not made. In short, a horse like American Pharoah is a gift.
Now, having read about the aplomb with which American Pharoah conquered the Rebel would you believe he accomplished this all while running with a bent shoe that he caught in that stumble out of the gate? WHOA. Wait. WHAT??!!?? Yes, you read that right. According to a report by The Blood Horse, it was discovered post-race that AP had caught his right front shoe as he broke from the gate and ran the entire race, flawlessly, on a sloppy track hampered by a bad shoe. Imagine Usain Bolt attempting to qualify for the finals of the Olympic 100-yard dash on a wet track and the sole of his shoe blowing out off the blocks. Lots of luck. I was stunned when I read that and can only imagine what American Pharoah can do on a dry, fast track, shoes intact. At this point, I suspect he honestly might take flight next out! Stay tuned for April 11, where it’s anticipated that he will return to Oaklawn to run in the Arkansas Derby.
It may seem that just winning the race under all the potential constraints–first race back, first encounter over a wet track, and the sprung shoe–is enough, but what he readily overcame and the advantages/experience gained in yesterday’s race don’t stop there. This was the first time AP had shipped for a race. He rated kindly on the lead. Having shown a bit of nerves prior to previous races, he appeared a cool customer yesterday. In my personal criteria for a horse advancing to the Derby he, in short, has checked every box that will help position him for success May 2. And with this only being his first race back this year, you can’t help but think (If this is at all possible!!) that he’ll show further improvement!!
Reports are that he came out of the race well and most importantly didn’t catch a quarter or otherwise injure his hoof in catching his shoe on the stumble. Whew!!
So to borrow from a current CVS commercial (of all things!) “Please, please, please. The wish we wish is health.” That is my most sincere wish for American Pharoah moving forward in next 48 days!!