On a cloudy, windy Sunday morning at Churchill Downs, a crowd of about 150 fans and media representatives gathered outside Barn 33, anxiously awaiting presumed Kentucky Derby favorite American Pharoah to emerge for his final pre-Derby workout.
Cell phones and cameras flashed as Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert came out first on foot, followed by his assistant Jimmy Barnes on his pony and finally the Arkansas Derby winner walked out of the barn with jockey Martin Garcia aboard at approximately 8:30 a.m. More fans, reporters and some familiar names and faces of the Churchill training colony lined the concrete path to see last year’s champion 2-year-old male make his way to the track.
When the son of Pioneerof the Nile finally hit the main track he did not disappoint, covering 5 furlongs in :58.40 with splits of :11.40, :23, :34.60 and :46.40. It was the fastest of 32 workouts at the distance and American Pharoah galloped out in 1:11 and 1:27.
Barn 33 was even more crowded when American Pharoah returned to his stall at around 8:45 a.m. An announcement had been made on Twitter that owner Ahmed Zayat, along with Baffert, would hold a press conference at 9:30 a.m. near the backside media center. Still the crowd, cameras ready, patiently waited outside the barn area for the striking bay to re-emerge for his post-workout bath.
A pack that numbered nearly 70 reporters and cameramen migrated to a tent-covered podium near the track and waited for Baffert and Zayat to take the stage. Both appeared pleased with the workout.
“The track was in great shape this morning,” Baffert said. “I felt great about the work. I was a little worried about the rain but it turned out great. He was pretty anxious and he was fresh; he hadn’t worked since his last race (Apr. 11 Arkansas Derby). Martin Garcia worked him and he knows this horse really well so he was just clipping along and doing it in hand.”
While Baffert noted that Zayat was a bit concerned about how just how fast the work went, he reassured his owner that it was typical behavior for American Pharoah.
“Mr. Zayat here was worried he might have worked a little too fast, but that’s the way he works in California. He does things really effortlessly. He galloped out strong, came back and wasn’t blowing. He handled it well. He’s moving along to me, he hasn’t regressed or anything, which is great.
“You watch him today and it looks like he’s not moving. And then you look at your watch and go ‘wow.’ ”
Baffert seemed to think that keeping American Pharoah happy was a bit easier than keeping Zayat relaxed.
“From here on out we’ll just keep the horse happy,” Baffert said. “The hardest part will probably be to keep Mr. Zayat tame all week. He’s been a nervous wreck. Everyone’s been on pins and needles; a lot of anxiety. But he’s an incredible horse and I’m just fortunate to have Mr. Zayat send him to me and just happy that we’re in this position.”
After Baffert’s time at the podium, Zayat was asked if the agony of defeat from his three runner-up Kentucky Derby finishes (Pioneerof the Nile in 2009, Nehro in 2011 and Bodemeister in 2012) made this year’s Kentucky Derby more exciting.
“Let’s put it this way; I want to focus on the positive – and there’s a lot,” Zayat said. “I’m very proud of my horse, my two other Kentucky Derby horses (El Kabeir and Mr. Z) and my trainer. But this is one special horse.”
Zayat did elaborate on the highs and lows of campaigning a Derby contender, and mentioned another potential favorite he owned in Eskendereya, who going into the 2010 Kentucky Derby suffered a career-ending injury the week of the race.
“It’s a privilege to just be here,” Zayat said. “It’s a humbling experience. I do know the agony of defeat as you mentioned earlier, forget about Eskendereya, who was scratched the week of the Derby. So it’s peaks and valleys; we’re very blessed and honored, but you guys know the game. It changes every second.”
The next potential peak or valley for Zayat will most likely occur at Wednesday’s post-position draw, when he will find out where each of his three Derby starters will be positioned in the probable field of 20, seeking his first victory in the run for the roses.