LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Brilliant but untested, American Pharoah was put to a fight in the Kentucky Derby and won.
Sent off as the 5-2 favorite by the record crowd of 170,513, the brown colt rallied in the stretch to beat Firing Line by a length Saturday and deliver trainer Bob Baffert’s fourth Derby win and first since 2002.
“It’s a fantasy moment for us,” said a joyous Baffert, surrounded by his three older sons and his youngest, 10-year-old Bode, who jumped up and down and waved his arms in celebration.
Baffert also saddled third-place Dortmund, the other part of his lethal 1-2 punch in the 141st Derby. Firing Line finished second.
“We were ready to rumble,” Baffert said.
Dortmund set a leisurely pace with Firing Line tracking him closely in second. American Pharoah sat comfortably in third down the backstretch.
That trio made it a three-horse race in the stretch, with none of the closers able to make up ground. American Pharoah angled outside and fought off a persistent Firing Line as Dortmund tired along the rail.
Now, the moment of truth. Could American Pharoah justify Baffert’s belief that he was an exceptional colt?
“I was on pins and needles all week,” the white-haired trainer said. “I know I was coming in here with the best horse.”
American Pharoah proved him right.
Still, it was a long road to the winner’s circle for the colt with the unusually short tail — having had it chewed off by another horse on the farm — and the misspelled moniker courtesy of a fan contest.
American Pharoah missed his first big test last year when he was scratched from the Breeders’ Cup with an injury. He returned with two easy wins this year against lesser competition. Dortmund and several other Derby contenders had beaten much tougher fields, raising questions about whether American Pharoah could mix it up in a 20-horse field.
Victor Espinoza won his second consecutive Derby a year after being aboard California Chrome, and third overall. He and Baffert teamed to win with War Emblem 18 years ago.
“He’s been a special horse since I first rode him,” Espinoza said. “I feel like the luckiest Mexican on Earth.”
American Pharoah ran 1 1/4 miles in 2:03.02.
Baffert tied D. Wayne Lukas and Herbert “Derby Dick” Thompson for second on the career win list.
American Pharoah paid $7.80, $5.80, $4.20.
Firing Line returned $8.40 and $5.40 at 10-1 odds, while Dortmund was another two lengths back in third and paid $4.20 to show.
Owner Ahmed Zayat accepted the gold winner’s trophy — his first after a trio of second-place finishes in the $2.1 million race.
“Finally, no more seconds,” he said, laughing.
Baffert trained two of Zayat’s runners-up: Pioneerof the Nile in 2009, the sire of American Pharoah; and Bodemeister, named for Baffert’s son, three years ago.
“This is for the Zayats, who have suffered so much running these seconds,” Baffert said. “We know what it is to just get punched right in the face.”
Zayat took a pre-Derby blow Friday, when one of his other horses, El Kabeir, was scratched because of a sore foot. Mr. Z, his third entry, finished 13th.
Frosted was fourth, followed by Danzig Moon, Materiality, Keen Ice and Mubtaahij. Itsaknockout was ninth and then came Carpe Diem, Frammento, Bolo, Mr. Z, Ocho Ocho Ocho, Far Right, War Story, Tencendur and Upstart.