by Nicole Schiveley When was the last time the Preakness Stakes (G1) was run with the absence of the Kentucky Derby’s (G1) top three finishers? It was 68 years ago, to be exact. That’s a long time in both horse years and human. While the excitement of a possible Triple Crown is what often gains our sport exposure to a broader audience, this year it has been the Derby DQ heard round the world that has brought horse racing to middle-class dinner tables everywhere in recent weeks. However, that’s a topic I’m not about to touch on. We have seen opinions galore regarding “Derbygate,” and the last opinion we need to add to that fire is mine. Instead, I am going to tell you all about the horses I like in this weekend’s Preakness, because the fact that many of the heavy-hitters will be missing from the Pimlico starting gate come Saturday afternoon only makes this race that much more intriguing. So, shall we? Let’s begin with War of Will… because WOW. War of Will is a horse whose Kentucky Derby performance has puzzled me tremendously. Though it seems zillions of different footage angles have surfaced since the Kentucky Derby, I think I would have to say he was impeded by Maximum Security, despite the opinion of many. That being said, I do believe War of Will was backing up, and that when asked to engage with the three other horses who eyeballed him at the head of the stretch he was the first to blink. It’s OK. Who can possibly hold that against him? He’s a three-year-old colt who was swimming in slop, had just checked hard, and was then asked to outbattle quality horses better than any he had run against yet. For me, his seventh-place finish wasn’t all that disappointing. I walked away from the Kentucky Derby saying two things: War of Will is a really nice horse but, regardless of his misfortune, he was not going to pass Maximum Security. That’s a horse who will run a big race in the Preakness. So here we are. Do I think he has the best shot to win the race? It’s hard to say, simply because I have loved the way the next horses I am about to discuss are looking over the Pimlico surface. One more thing, though. War of Will drew post 1, which to me, is an advantage. If drawing the 1 didn’t decimate his chances in the Derby, I am not certain why anyone would see his Preakness draw as a negative. He will break well, as he always does, and enjoy a rail-hugging, ground-saving trip along the inside under jockey Tyler Gaffalione. If this son of War Front is to nab one of the Triple Crown races, this is the race it’ll be. Of course, Improbable may have something to say about that. I have been relatively open about the fact that I am not Improbable’s biggest fan. Don’t get me wrong, he’s as nice a horse as any in the field. However, I don’t believe he has ever been the athlete he was hyped to be long before he even raced. In fact, he enters the Preakness off three consecutive losses while tying down the role of morning-line favorite. Sure, his fluid stride and effortless way of going do make him a horse who will likely be a factor in any race he runs, but I can’t help but question how much this son of City Zip really wants to win. He can have all the mechanical makeup in the world, but unless he has in him the competitive nature to want to throw down and refuse to lose, I wonder if Improbable may be a horse to pick up small checks everywhere he goes, without many wins. All of that being said, he looks fantastic over the Pimlico surface. I am seeing vast improvement in him since Kentucky Derby week, when I was rather vocal about my dislike of the way he was covering the Churchill ground. He appears to be skipping over the surface with an electricity I have yet to see from him, and it is looking like he will have the fast track he desires. What I said regarding War of Will also applies to Improbable. If he is going to nab one of the Triple Crown races, this is the race it’ll be. Now, on to the horse I am most intrigued by. Bourbon War looks phenomenal at Pimlico. There is literally nothing I can say negatively about his physique at this time. He is on the muscle and feeling every inch of himself as any horse in prime condition would. He does, however, come with some question marks. How good is this son of Tapit, if he has yet to win anything but a maiden special weight and an allowance? Anytime he has faced stakes company, Bourbon War has come up short, without much excuse. That being said, some horses simply have yet to figure things out at this point in their careers, and just because he has yet to tackle that signature win doesn’t mean it is not in the cards for him. Trainer Mark Hennig is adding a small cup blinker for the Preakness, and while I don’t normally like change just before a big outing this change may do the strapping bay colt some good. At morning line odds of 12-1, I am happy to go out on a limb and say that this may be the race in which Bourbon War takes a huge step forward. These are the three horses I will be paying most attention to when compiling my Preakness Stakes tickets. With my TwinSpires account, and a little bit of luck, I may be sitting pretty at the end of the weekend. PHOTO: Bourbon War takes an allowance/optional claimer under jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. at Gulfstream Park on January 18, 2019 (c) Adam Coglianese Photography/Leslie Martin