LOUISVILLE, Ky. — It was no secret that Bob Baffert had brought a couple of big horses to America’s biggest race, the Kentucky Derby: Dortmund had never been beaten, and his stablemate, American Pharoah, was being compared to the great Seattle Slew. In fact, some closed their eyes and transported themselves back to 1948, when the legendary trainer Ben Jones brought a couple of iconic colts named Citation and Coaltown to Churchill Downs.
What most wanted to know, however, was which of Baffert’s two colts was better. For weeks, Baffert, the white-haired trainer, had to do something that did not come naturally: He had to dodge the question. He had to keep his own counsel.
It was wise, of course — the owner of Dortmund, Kaleem Shah, and the owner of American Pharoah, Ahmed Zayat, each provided Baffert with an ample number of quality horses. Why alienate one or the other? It was also necessary: Baffert was not sure.
He had kept the colts apart the past five months, with Dortmund dominating in California in three impressive victories against what was considered the stiffest competition in the land. American Pharaoh, who was injured late in his 2-year-old campaign, was dispatched to Arkansas in March and April — on the late side — for two tuneups that looked like workouts, as he won the Rebel Stakes by six and a quarter lengths and the Arkansas Derby by eight.
Sure, American Pharoah, a son of Pioneerof the Nile, had been regarded well enough early in his career that he was voted the 2-year-old champion even though he missed the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. But over the past few weeks here, as Baffert heard a couple of Hall of Fame trainers, D. Wayne Lukas and Bill Mott, tell him he had a special horse on his hands, he wondered.
Ben Jones. Seattle Slew. Triple Crown.
Gary Stevens, aboard Firing Line, chased Dortmund in the far turn. Stevens, 52, had been coming here for 30 years, winning on the first Saturday in May three times. He had a plan. In their previous meeting, in the Robert B. Lewis, Firing Line passed Dortmund in the stretch but was quickly reeled in.
“Dortmund is like Silver Charm and likes a fight,” Stevens said, referring to the colt he rode to victory in the 1997 Derby. “I moved too early.”
He was not going to make the same mistake.
As they turned for home, Dortmund cut the corner first. Firing Line moved to the middle of the track, and Victor Espinoza, aboard American Pharoah, chose the wide route.