BALTIMORE (AP) — To spoil or not to spoil. That is the question.
The Preakness Stakes on Saturday will present a rare, but not unprecedented, story line that could see the trainer of Kentucky Derby winner American Pharoah upend his chance at a Triple Crown if stablemate Dortmund avenges his Derby defeat.
“My job is to try to win all three races and to win every race I’m entered,” trainer Bob Baffert said in trying to explain his unique predicament.
While the post-position draw is later Wednesday at Pimlico Race Course, the field will include the first three Derby finishers, American Pharoah, Firing Line and Dortmund.
“If you’re going to be a Triple Crown winner,” the Hall of Fame trainer continued, “… he’s going to have to beat his stablemate. He’s got to beat Firing Line, and probably some other horses in there.”
Ahmed Zayat, the owner of American Pharoah, understands Baffert’s situation. The two are close friends. Their families are close. Both are fiercely competitive. And Zayat welcomes another opportunity to show off his “dream horse,” especially in taking on rival Kaleem Shah, a Baffert client and the owner of Dortmund.
“Am I concerned Dortmund can step up? Of course you are,” Zayat said. “You are concerned with all of them. But I think we’re better than all of them. I think we are a cut above.”
And if Dortmund wins?
“It’s not happening. We have a much better horse,” Zayat said, not as a boast but in his way of exuding confidence “I have tremendous faith in that horse. It’s just not happening.”
Two decades ago, it did happen. To another Hall of Fame trainer, D. Wayne Lukas.
Two weeks after Thunder Gulch won the 1995 Derby, Lukas won the Preakness with Timber Country (Thunder Gulch was third). Three weeks after that, Thunder Gulch came back and won the Belmont Stakes (Timber Country was scratched with a fever).
For his part, Lukas said he felt no pressure from either of his high-profile owners in running back Timber Country — who incidentally was the beaten Derby favorite and the top choice in the Preakness.
“Look, when this kind of thing happens, you just do the best job with both of them,” Lukas, who has won a record 14 Triple Crown races, most recently the 2013 Preakness with Oxbow, said. “It’s so difficult to win these races. Bob has said, `If Dortmund wins it then so be it.’ That’s kind of the way it is.”
A similar plot developed for Lukas after Charismatic won the 1999 Derby. The trainer also sent out top contender Cat Thief in the Preakness, but Charismatic prevailed before finishing third in the Belmont.
More recently, after trainer Todd Pletcher won his first Derby with Super Saver in 2010, he also sent out Aikenite in the Preakness. The difference was Aikenite was the longest shot on the board at 30-1. Neither won; it was Baffert claiming his fifth Preakness with Lookin At Lucky.
“It’s always a tricky situation,” Pletcher said. “Here, you have the Derby winner and one of the major contenders who actually has a chance to upset American Pharaoh. But you have to do what’s best for each individual horse and each individual owner. When you operate a large stable, you’re going to have situations like this.”
Neither Zayat nor Shah are putting pressure on Baffert. In fact, Shah is leaving the decision whether to run Dortmund up to Baffert.
“Kaleem just told me, `Look, if you think he’s going to run well, run him,” Baffert said. “If you don’t think so … he left it up to me. It’s my call.”
Zayat is not about to put any more heat on his pal. He said the two have not even discussed Dortmund and the Preakness.
“I don’t want him to be conflicted because he’s already under tremendous pressure,” Zayat said. “I feel if we are the best horse we should beat them. Dortmund, too.
Plus, Zayat considers himself a pretty good horseman. He’s seen American Pharoah from the time the 3-year-old son of Pioneerof the Nile was born in Kentucky. And he’s checked out the competition.
“I see most of them, how they train and I form my own opinion. I don’t need anyone to spin anything for me,” he said. “Look, one part of me, of course, the lesser the merrier, but the competitive side of me? I want to beat him again.”
There’s really not much choice when your owners believe they have a chance to win.
“You’re representing two different factions, two different clientele,” Lukas said. “You can’t orchestrate it. You can’t set it up unless you just take one horse out of it, which is foolish. You just have to do the best job you can.”
AP freelance writer Josh Abner in Louisville, Kentucky, contributed to this report.
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