Preakness: How do Derby alumni vs. new shooters compare?

May 14th, 2024

For many years, the Preakness (G1) at Pimlico was dominated by horses exiting the Kentucky Derby (G1) two weeks prior. But trends are shifting, and now “new shooters” who did not compete in the Derby are winning the Preakness with regularity.

The last 40 years of Preakness history tell the story. Between 1984 and 2016, 30 out of 33 Preakness winners came out of the Kentucky Derby. Only Red Bullet (2000), Bernardini (2006), and Rachel Alexandra (2009) managed to defy the trend.

But then in 2017, Cloud Computing upset the Preakness after finishing third in the Wood Memorial (G2) and skipping the Kentucky Derby. In 2020, Swiss Skydiver came off a runner-up effort in the Kentucky Oaks (G1) to beat colts in the Preakness. She was followed by Blue Grass (G2) third-place finisher Rombauer (2021), Wood Memorial runner-up Early Voting (2022), and Santa Anita Derby (G1) fourth-place finisher National Treasure (2023), all of whom won the Preakness after skipping the Derby.

That’s four wins in a row for new shooters at Pimlico. So what’s changed? To a large extent it’s a numbers game. Horses don’t run as often as they did years ago, and the two-week gap between the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness prompts many Derby alumni to skip the Preakness. It used to be common for a bevy of Derby starters to run back two weeks later in the Preakness, but in 2023, Kentucky Derby winner Mage was the only Derby starter to tackle the Preakness.

There’s another subtle advantage in favor of new shooters. They can specifically target the Preakness from five or six weeks out, helping them deliver a peak performance at Pimlico. For Derby alumni, the Preakness can be something of an afterthought, and some horses struggle to reproduce their best form while running back two weeks after the Derby.

Kentucky Derby alumni in the 2024 Preakness

Entries and post positions for this year’s Preakness were confirmed on Monday, with three Kentucky Derby starters slated to take part. That’s triple the contingent from 2023, but still not a huge number.

The Derby brigade is led by #5 Mystik Dan (5-2), who saved ground every step of the way to win the 150th Kentucky Derby in a three-horse photo finish. Louisiana Derby (G2) winner #3 Catching Freedom (6-1), who closed ground nicely to finish fourth by 1 3/4 lengths in the Kentucky Derby, is another major player. The group is rounded out by #7 Just Steel (15-1), who finished ahead of Mystik Dan when second in the Arkansas Derby (G1) before fading from a pace-pressing position to finish 17th in the Kentucky Derby.

New shooters in the 2024 Preakness

New shooters in the 2024 Preakness outnumber the Derby alumni 2-to-1. What’s more, they represent one of the strongest groups of newcomers in recent Preakness memory. Their roster includes:

#1 Mugatu (20-1): Veteran of a dozen starts exits a fifth-place finish in the Blue Grass (G1) behind Sierra Leone, who went on to finish second in the Kentucky Derby. Mugatu was an also-eligible entrant in the Kentucky Derby, but failed to draw in and was scratched.

#2 Uncle Heavy (20-1): Finished fifth in the Wood Memorial (G2) off a two-month break. He’d previously unleashed a big homestretch rally to take the Withers (G3) on the Road to the Kentucky Derby.

#4 Muth (8-5): The American Pharoah (G1), San Vicente (G2), and Arkansas Derby winner is 2-for-2 this year. In the Arkansas Derby, he pressed the pace before taking command to beat Just Steel by two lengths and Mystik Dan by 6 1/4 lengths. Muth is the morning line favorite to take the Preakness for trainer Bob Baffert, who has won the Preakness a record eight times.

#6 Seize the Grey (15-1): Improving Road to the Kentucky Derby veteran cut back in distance for the Pat Day Mile (G2) on Kentucky Derby Day at Churchill Downs, where he charged down the homestretch to beat a strong field by 1 1/2 lengths.

#8 Tuscan Gold (8-1): Lightly raced colt exits a third-place finish in the Louisiana Derby, where he finished only 1 3/4 lengths behind Catching Freedom. That effort yielded a promising 98 Brisnet Speed rating, suggesting Tuscan Gold is a serious contender for two-time Preakness-winning trainer Chad Brown.

#9 Imagination (6-1): Never out of the exacta in six starts, California raider Imagination won the San Felipe (G2) during the winter and exits a close runner-up finish in the Santa Anita Derby (G1).

It’s possible Mystik Dan, Catching Freedom, or Just Steel will become the first Derby starter since 2019 to succeed in the Preakness. But recent history suggests this year’s strong group of new shooters will be formidable at Pimlico.