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American Pharoah wins the Kentucky Derby

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Morry Gash/AP

Victor Espinoza rides American Pharoah to victory in the 141st running of the Kentucky Derby.

LOUISVILLE – American Pharoah proved not only he could take a punch but he could deliver a knockout, when he edged away from Firing Line to take $ 2 million Kentucky Derby.

The 3-year-old colt now heads to Baltimore for the May 16 Preakness Stakes where he’ll try to keep the Triple Crown dream alive.

“I’m the luckiest Mexican on the Earth,” said jockey Victor Espinoza, who won his third Kentucky Derby and the second in a row, winning last year aboard California Chrome.

American Pharoah, the champion 2-year-old of 2014, ran the mile-and-quarter in 2:03.02 and returned $ 7.80 to win as the 5-2 favorite before a record crowd of 170,513.

The win also gave winning trainer Bob Baffert his fourth Derby winner and his first since 2002 when War Emblem prevailed under Espinoza.

Baffert’s other runner, Dortmund, set the pace before weakening late to third.

“I’m so grateful to have these horses,” said the Hall of Fame trainer.

Derby week began with a flash of lightning when American Pharoah drilled five furlongs in :58.40 over Churchill Downs’ main track, the fastest of 32 workers at the distance.

“I have been doing this for 35 years and he might be the best horse I’ve ever seen,” said private clocker and bloodstock agent Gary Young. “He’s simply like Michael Jordan and stays in the air like he did in his rookie year. He stays in the air longer than any horse and you get the feeling that there’s not one gear left, but he may have two, three or four gears.”

Trainer Bob Baffert, who has won the Derby three times in his Hall of Fame career, liked what he saw.

“He was just clipping along,” the trainer said. “He was doing it in hand, but that’s the way he works. (Owner) Mr. (Ahmed) Zayat was wondering if he was going too fast, but he hasn’t seen him. That’s how he works in California. He does things really effortlessly. He galloped out strong, came back and wasn’t blowing. He handled it well.”

Although he won the Derby three times, the last time Baffert saddled a Derby winner was in 2002 when War Emblem won.

“It’s been so long I’ve forgotten,” he said when asked how he’d react to a fourth victory. “That’s the past right there. It was so long ago it doesn’t matter. This horse is totally different than those other horses. When he runs, he shows a dimension. He surprises me every time that I run him. I’m looking forward and hope everything goes well. But he still needs racing luck. You have to get a decent post, you need to break well and get the trip. A lot can happen, so I really don’t take anything for granted.”

On Wednesday, at the post-position draw, Baffert was hoping that neither of his Derby starters – American Pharoah and the undefeated Dortmund – would draw the dreaded rail post-position and they escaped it with Dortmund drawing the eight-hole and American Pharoah ending up in the 18.

“It’s good. It’s okay,” Baffert said of the draw. “Anything but being down there.”

The rail went to longshot Ocho Ocho Ocho, who was made 50-1 on the morning line.

The field of 20 was set not even for a day, when trainer Todd Pletcher announced that Stanford (#11), one of four Derby starters for the trainer, would scratch from the race and point for a possible start in the May 16 Preakness Stakes.

His defection allowed longshot Frammento to draw into the field, giving trainer Nick Zito his chance at saddling his third Derby winner.

“We are all excited,” Zito said. “We made it. Everybody is happy. He has been training great. I know we will have to break from the 20, but that is a lot better than Post Zero!”

That left Pletcher with just three Derby starters – Carpe Diem, Materiality and Itsaknockout.

On Friday, there was another scratch, when El Kabeir (#7) came up with a tender left front hoof and then on Saturday, International Star (#12) became the fourth horse to scratch after developing an abscess in his left front foot.

“It’s a devastating blow to come this far,” said owner Ken Ramsey, a native of Kentucky, who was trying to win his first Derby. “I thought I had a decent shot at winning the race.”

In addition to Stanford, El Kabeir and International Star, Tale of Verve was also scratched because he was an also-eligible and didn’t get into the field because wagering had started already.

With only 18 horses, it marked the smallest Derby field going back to 2004 when Smarty Jones won the Derby.

Because of the scratches, both post one and 20 weren’t used, meaning no horse had to deal with breaking from the dreaded rail.

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