American Pharoah has Bob Baffert back in the Triple Crown groove.

With thunder rumbling and rain pouring down, Kentucky Derby winner American Pharoah cruised to the lead early and easily won the Preakness Stakes on Saturday.

The brilliant 3-year-old colt was never seriously challenged after shaking off long-shot Mr. Z and won by seven lengths to set up the ultimate drama in racing -- a Triple Crown attempt at the Belmont Stakes in three weeks in New York.

"Great horses do great things," Baffert said after his sixth Preakness victory, "and he showed that today. He's just an incredible horse."

American Pharoah, who started from the rail under Victor Espinoza, will be 14th Derby-Preakness winner to take a shot at becoming the first to sweep the Derby, Preakness and Belmont since Affirmed in 1978.

For Baffert, he'll be taking an unprecedented fourth shot at racing's most coveted prize. He won the Derby and Preakness with Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet in 1998 and War Emblem in 2002. All three fell short in the Belmont.

"I don't even want to think about the Triple Crown right now,' the 62-year-old trainer said. "I want to enjoy this. It's tough up there."

A rainstorm began about 15 minutes before the race went off, preceded by several lightning bolts, but it didn't affect American Pharoah, a sweet-striding 3-year-old. The colt dealt with similar conditions in winning the Rebel Stakes in March.

The dominating win confirmed owner Ahmed Zayat's belief that American Pharoah is a champion in the making.

"I always told everybody American Pharoah would show up today," said Zayat, drenched after his trip to the winner's circle. "Indeed he did. He is the real deal."

American Pharoah may have only half a tail and sensitive ears that Baffert stuffs with cotton, but he's pretty close to perfection. Bought back at auction by Zayat for $300,000, American Pharoah earned $900,000 for the win to boost his winnings to $3.7 million.

A Triple Crown is priceless.

"He put on a show today," said Zayat, a businessman from Egypt who lives in Teaneck, New Jersey. "Nobody came close to him."

Espinoza played his role well, too. His horse in the previous race was scratched when he reared up in the starting gate and fell, but Espinoza wasn't bothered by the incident.

In fact, he became the first jockey to have a third try at a Triple Crown. Espinoza won the Derby and Preakness with War Emblem in 2002 and California Chrome last year, but fell short in the Belmont.

"I hope the third one is the charm," Espinoza said.

With a record crowd of 131,680 crammed into Pimlico Race Course, American Pharoah broke a step slow before Espionza hustled him to the lead. He then fended off a brief bid from Mr. Z, while American Pharoah's stablemate, Dortmund, and Derby runner-up Firing Line weren't factors.

"He didn't like the sloppy track," said Dortmund's rider, Martin Garcia. "He didn't come out good from the gate. He didn't like the mud in his face."

Simon Callaghan, who trained Firing Line, said the horse lost all chance when he stumbled a stride out of the gate.

"That took his momentum and then he never really got hold of the track," Callaghan said.

American Pharoah comes into the 1 1/2-mile Belmont with a six-race winning streak. His margin of victory in the 1 3-16th-mile Preakness was the largest since Smarty Jones won by a record 11 1/2 lengths in 2004. It matched the sixth-largest margin in Preakness history.

Tale of Verve was a distant second, followed by Divining Rod, Dortmund, Mr. Z, Danzig Moon, Firing Line and Bodhisattva. The winning time was a slow 1:58.46.

American Pharoah was sent off as the 4-5 favorite and returned $3.80, $3.40 and $2.80. Tale of Verve returned $19 and $8.80, and Divining Rod paid $5.20.

"It went very well," Espinoza said. "He bounced out of there. He broke a little tiny bit slow and I pushed him to the front."

And now it's on to the Belmont, also known as the Test of the Champion.

"He just skips through everything," Baffert said. "He's that kind of horse. A wet track. A dry track. These horses can make excuses, but if they are ready to run and he fires, you win."