For the first time since 1951, the principals from the Kentucky Derby (G1) are all absent from the Preakness (G1). But if the Middle Jewel doesn’t lend itself so much to a “rematch” story line, Saturday’s classic in Baltimore is giving a few Derby competitors a fresh playing field versus several up-and-comers.
Leading the cast is Improbable, who aims to give Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert a record eighth Preakness. The 4-1 post time Derby favorite, he crossed the wire in a fairly even fifth (promoted to fourth via the disqualification of Maximum Security). That was the second straight sloppy track that the big chestnut encountered, following his runner-up effort to Omaha Beach in the Arkansas Derby (G1).
Despite the fact that he was beaten only a length by the early Kentucky Derby favorite at Oaklawn, I didn’t get the sense that Improbable was in love with the slop. To me, he gave off the vibe of one tolerating it and plowing through on class. Then again, the blinker experiment had him all at sea from the beginning of the Arkansas Derby anyway, so I could be misreading or over-interpreting it. In any event, the blinkers-off Improbable did not really pick up in the slop at Churchill as he was beaten a shade over three lengths, and he’s manifestly better than that.
If the advance forecast holds, Improbable stands to get a fast surface at Pimlico, and we could well see him back to his best. The City Zip colt remains capable of the brute power he showed in last fall’s Street Sense and Los Alamitos Futurity (G1).
War of Will would like a word with Maximum Security after the fracas on the Derby far turn, but until he gets that opportunity, the Mark Casse trainee at least deserves a clean trip in the Preakness. While we’ll never know exactly how much the interference cost him, War of Will maintained his contending position for a long way before fading to eighth (elevated to seventh). And the immediate postrace quotes suggested he just got tired. Casse relayed what jockey Tyler Gaffalione had told him: “if he could have gotten him to relax a little he thought he would finish a little better.”
Indeed, War of Will had every right to feel it that last furlong even if he hadn’t been hampered or raced too keenly in the early going. Remember his awkward steps at the beginning of the Louisiana Derby (G2), where he lost his action and never factored in ninth? He got virtually nothing out of his final Kentucky Derby prep, six weeks ahead of the first Saturday in May. So War of Will had not had a proper race since his Risen Star (G2) victory back on…February 16.
Thus War of Will’s pattern of races – but not his overall profile – reminds me of Bravazo last year. Bravazo also won the Risen Star, got nothing out of a bizarre trip in the Louisiana Derby, ran a sneakily-good sixth behind Justify in the Churchill slop, moved forward a light year at Pimlico, and almost upset the Triple Crown winner. War of Will has the same entitlement to improve off the Derby, along with the advantage of being a naturally more brilliant performer than Bravazo.
The other two exiting the Derby are Win Win Win and Bodexpress. Win Win Win, who brought exotics appeal in the wake of a troubled but hard-charging second in the Blue Grass (G2), raced far back early at Churchill and got no closer than 10th (officially placed ninth). The Mike Trombetta pupil is eligible to return to his prior form, but still needs to step up to become a win threat. Bodexpress, part of the collateral damage on the Derby far turn, is still a maiden albeit one with a respectable level of form for Gustavo Delgado. Runner-up to Maximum Security in the Florida Derby (G1) two back, the Bodemeister colt aims to become the first to break his maiden in the Preakness since Refund (1888).
The historical trends strongly favor Derby alumni winning the Preakness, but the 2019 Triple Crown trail hasn’t exactly gone according to script. This is just the type of year for a new shooter to defy the stats.
The most logical place to look is among the “bubble” horses who might have been a tad unlucky not to make the Derby field, and Bourbon War is Exhibit A. Trained by Mark Hennig, the Tapit blueblood brings the rich vein of Florida form that stood up well in the Derby. Bourbon War was a closing second to Code of Honor in the Fountain of Youth (G2) and fourth in the Florida Derby, where he had no chance given the race shape benefitting the front runners. (Saturday’s Peter Pan [G3] is an additional data point, with Fountain of Youth alum Global Campaign prevailing.)
Sometimes my penchant for counterfactuals can lead me astray, but just as a thought experiment, what if Bourbon War had been in the Wood Memorial (G2) instead of the Florida Derby? Isn’t there a reasonable chance he gets more points at Aqueduct than at Gulfstream (all he needed was a third in the Wood)? And gets in the Derby? In that alternate universe, Bourbon War might have brought a stronger resume into Baltimore. At a minimum, the talented colt is adding blinkers for the Preakness and figures to get an honest pace.
The “what-if” game applies to Marylander Alwaysmining in a slightly different way. He’s compiled a six-race winning spree capped by the Federico Tesio – a Preakness “Win and You’re In” – without venturing into Derby scoring races. Yet he’s turned in Brisnet Speed figures in the high 90s of late, implying that he would have been competitive had connections attempted Derby preps. Trainer Kelly Rubley’s patient game might prove wisest in the end, as Alwaysmining enters the biggest test of his life riding a wave of confidence. And he’s not without some collateral form, having beaten Win Win Win in the Heft last December. His defeat of Gray Magician, the future UAE Derby runner-up, in the Miracle Wood is less compelling but still noteworthy. A front runner in the first five races of his current skein, Alwaysmining proved he could stalk and pounce in his 11-length demolition job in the Tesio.
Bubble list veteran Signalman has perhaps the most gnawing what-might-have-been for his connections. Had they entered as an also-eligible, he would have drawn into Derby 145 upon the scratch of Haikal. Signalman had scored his signature win in last fall’s Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) in similarly sloppy conditions at Churchill, following a third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) over the same track. The same points don’t promise to carry over to Pimlico. Moreover, Signalman has yet to perform up to his 2018 form, most recently finishing third in the Blue Grass. He’ll have to move forward markedly third start off the layoff for Ken McPeek.
Owendale has the look of a rapid improver after capturing the Lexington (G3) with a monster circling move. The proverbial light bulb came on one start too late, unfortunately, to make the Derby. The Brad Cox trainee had made no impact in his stakes debut in the Risen Star, winding up eighth behind War of Will and promoted Kentucky Derby winner Country House. Although not as gaudy as the Gulfstream form, the Risen Star has its own graduate success stories, with Plus Que Parfait going on to take the UAE Derby (G2) and Mr. Money garnering the Pat Day Mile (G3). In hindsight, there was no disgrace to being unplaced in the Risen Star, and Owendale’s dynamic breakthrough at Keeneland came at the expense of several Derby trail veterans.
Chief among them is “bubble” horse Anothertwistafate. After dominating the El Camino Real Derby – the first “Win and You’re In” for the Preakness – on his home Tapeta at Golden Gate Fields, Anothertwistafate met with disadvantageous trips in his ensuing Derby points races on dirt. In the Sunland Park Derby (G3), Cutting Humor was already launching his winning move by the time Anothertwistafate could angle out, and his rally fell a neck short. Nevertheless, Cutting Humor had been summarily dismissed by Bourbon War in a Gulfstream allowance, so on a literal reading of form, Anothertwistafate has a gap to close with him.
Anothertwistafate’s gap with Owendale isn’t merely hypothetical, but actual, from his 1 3/4-length defeat in the Lexington. Although Anothertwistafate was temporarily in traffic, he did cut the corner into the stretch once clear, and it would be rash to claim he’d have outfinished Owendale. That said, Anothertwistafate didn’t have an ideal scenario on the turnaround. Marooned at Sunland when he couldn’t return to Golden Gate due to an EHV-1 positive back home, the Blaine Wright trainee actually worked in New Mexico before shipping again to Keeneland. Now Anothertwistafate not only has better spacing between races going into the Preakness, but he’s also been training in the friendly confines of Golden Gate. The son of Scat Daddy (sire of Justify) can put a better foot forward at Pimlico.
Like Anothertwistafate and Alwaysmining, Laughing Fox prevailed in a Preakness “Win and You’re In,” in his case the inaugural Oaklawn Invitational. But unlike them, Laughing Fox also competed in a major Derby prep, the Arkansas Derby, and finished a creditable fourth. Although Omaha Beach and Improbable were in a race of their own that day, Laughing Fox was only a length off the third-placer – Country House.
Trained by Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen, the flashy Union Rags colt had a productive meet in Hot Springs. Laughing Fox won two straight, including a Presidents’ Day allowance in a time comparable to the Southwest (G3) later on the card, before a troubled seventh in the Omaha Beach/Game Winner division of the Rebel (G2). Then he resumed his upward curve, and last out rallied stoutly to beat some useful sorts in the nine-furlong Oaklawn Invitational. The broad parallel is with Owendale, if without quite the same panache.
Oaklawn has produced two more Preakness contenders, both longshots. Warrior’s Charge, a stablemate of Owendale from the Cox barn, came to hand too late for a Triple Crown nomination. So Ten Strike Racing and Madaket Stables must stump up $150,000 to supplement the Munnings colt, who will make an audacious stakes debut off maiden and entry-level allowance romps. Warrior’s Charge promises to contribute to the pace after both wire jobs in solid time.
Hall of Fame trainer and six-time Preakness winner D. Wayne Lukas pitched Market King onto the list Sunday. A distant third in Omaha Beach’s Rebel, he retreated to 11th after a wide trip in the Blue Grass. If you’re trawling for positive talking points, he’s a Niarchos Family-bred blueblood (like War of Will), bred on a similar cross to Owendale (Into Mischief over A.P. Indy), and training forwardly.
Preakness Starting Gate (c) Jim McCue/Maryland Jockey Club