Victor Espinoza aboard American Pharoah, right, leads the pack out of turn four during the 140th Preakness Stakes. He went on to win by more than five lengths.(Photo: Geoff Burke, USA TODAY Sports)



BALTIMORE -- The rain was coming down sideways, the thunder rumbling in the distance, the wind shaking tents in the infield as trainer Bob Baffert huddled with his wife Jill in the paddock moments prior to the start of the Preakness Stakes.

The stands at Pimlico Race Course were practically empty, as security officers hustled people inside to avoid potential lightning strikes. And on the track, as jockey Victor Espinoza's boots were filling with water and a river was building in front of his post position on the rail, it created a stark, surreal backdrop for American Pharoah to prove whether he belonged among the great 3-year olds that have come along in recent memory.

The verdict came in somewhere around the quarter pole, when American Pharoah skipped through the slop and pulled away from his seven rivals, backing up his grinding Kentucky Derby win with a seven-length Preakness romp before a record crowd of 131,680.

He will now head to Belmont Park on June 6 trying to do what 13 horses since Affirmed in 1978 have tried and failed to do: Win the Triple Crown.

"It's absolute elation," owner Ahmed Zayat said. "I was honestly happy for the sport. A sport without a star is not a sport. Now, God willing, he comes out of this race well and we could be talking about history."

Horse racing no doubt has its next star in American Pharoah, who won the Preakness in much the same manner as his romps this winter in Arkansas, which were so visually impressive that he went to the Kentucky Derby as a solid favorite.

But unlike that day, where he had to work hard in the stretch to get by Firing Line and Dortmund, this race was over for all intents and purposes by the time he reached the second turn.

"I've never won this race as easily and handily," said Baffert, who collected his sixth Preakness victory and will send a record fourth horse to Belmont with a chance at the Triple Crown. "This is the only horse I've never had to talk people into how good he is. He's doing all the talking."

The storm, which began to percolate about a half-hour before the race after a hot, sunny afternoon, added intrigue because it was impossible to predict how the horses and jockeys would handle it. The rain was so dense and the winds were so strong moments before they loaded into the gate, it was almost impossible to see the track.

"The weather changed everything," Espinoza said. "I was freezing out there. I just wanted to get it over with."

It also altered Espinoza's tactics. Instead of letting the race develop, he wasn't going to mess around, particularly with the confidence that he was on the best horse and one that had already won over a sloppy track in the Rebel Stakes on March 14.

After breaking slightly sideways from the No. 1 hole, Espinoza hustled American Pharoah to the lead, where he went head-to-head with Mr. Z through a quick first quarter in 22.90 seconds. After another relatively fast second quarter in 23.59, he had a 2 length lead with the field spread out and his primary rivals Dortmund and Firing Line obviously struggling over the wet surface.

"I just wanted to bounce out of there and go for the lead," Espinoza said. "It was a fast pace, but I had no choice but to let him run."

At that point, though, the race slowed down considerably. With the lead and the ability to set the pace, Espinoza eased off American Pharoah -- a "breather" in racing parlance slowing him down and letting his rivals come to him. As they were working hard to catch up, however, Espinoza was conserving energy, only asking American Pharoah for acceleration once they straightened away in the stretch.

The response was immediate and devastating, the field receding farther and farther behind him. Even though Espinoza couldn't see the distance between himself and everyone else through his soaked goggles, he knew simply by how well American Pharoah was moving underneath him that the race had been won.

"I told Victor, if he (runs his race), he'll win," Baffert said. "If he doesn't, blame it on the rain or whatever, but he skips over everything wet track, dry track. Going down the backside, I saw those ears go up, I thought, 'Oh yeah.' "

But as American Pharoah came thundering down the stretch, a different emotion came over him. Baffert has gone through the Triple Crown grind three times before: In 1997 with Silver Charm, in 1998 with Real Quiet and in 2002 with War Emblem. He knows how grinding the next three weeks will be between the media obligations, the posse that grows around the stable and the constant scrutiny on every aspect of his operation. He also knows the physical toll it takes on a modern horse to run three of these classic races in the span of five weeks, ending with the 1 mile Belmont Stakes against a field likely filled with fresh horses.

"It's gonna be tough," Baffert said. "This is the easiest of the three, and I know everyone is sharpening their knives getting ready."

There will also be speculation about what American Pharoah's performance in the Preakness really means, given the odd track conditions and the fact that his primary competition from the Kentucky Derby didn't do much running. Firing Line, who ran a game second in the Derby, stumbled leaving the starting gate and was eased by jockey Gary Stevens after it became obvious he had no chance.

Though American Pharoah's final time of 1:58.46 was exceptionally slow you have to go back to Fabius in 1956 (1:58.40) to find a comparable Preakness the sudden rainstorm and funky track renders most analysis of the race moot. The only thing to glean is that American Pharoah keeps delivering, no matter the circumstances.

"I made a conscious decision during this campaign that we weren't going to hype the horse," owner Ahmed Zayat said. "People were saying he's the next Seattle Slew; he's this, he's that. But the sign of a good horse is whatever you throw at him, he finds a way to win. I felt everything went against him at the Derby. He was wide; didn't like the track that day, and in spite of it all, he still won.

"But he put on a show today."

PHOTOS: Saturday at the Preakness

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