Racing Roundtable: 2023 Preakness edition
James Scully, Kellie Reilly, and Vance Hanson reconvene to discuss 2023 Preakness weekend in this week's Racing Roundtable.
What are your thoughts on the Preakness (G1)?
James Scully: Oxbow upset the 2013 Preakness at 15-1 because the competition allowed him to steal it, establishing slow opening splits in :23.94, :48.60, and 1:13.26 while unopposed, and National Treasure crawled through even slower fractions in Saturday’s paceless race (:23.95, :48.91, and 1:13.49) while loose on the lead. That proved extremely fortuitous. The Grade 1-placed juvenile appears back on the right track for Bob Baffert, recording the first win since his career debut last September, but National Treasure barely outlasted Blazing Sevens. After failing to be a serious factor in his first two starts this year, Blazing Sevens rebounded with an encouraging performance, offering a big run from just off the pace to miss by a head. The slow fractions worked against Kentucky Derby (G1) winner Mage, who checked in an even third following an improved break.
Kellie Reilly: My takeaways on Preakness night mentioned the new shooter trend, then focused more on what was absent – several significant divisional players and any sort of pace, enabling National Treasure to take advantage as a circumstantial winner. I’ll offer an addendum here on runner-up Blazing Sevens, who nearly gave Chad Brown a third Preakness victory.
As the hero of last fall’s Champagne (G1) who flopped in his sophomore debut, and made some progress in his next outing, Blazing Sevens was at a crossroads. Would he move forward again or did he need to lower his sights? Brown skipped the Derby to give him more time, in a situation different from his two successful new shooters, and Blazing Sevens responded with a career-best 99 Brisnet Speed rating. Although Brown cited the wide trip as a factor in his loss by a scant head, I wonder if the distance didn’t also stretch him. Now that Blazing Sevens is back in business, he could have a big race in him in the one-mile to nine-furlong range.
Vance Hanson: This edition lacked depth and the result was almost predetermined when National Treasure was allowed to escape with a soft pace. He obviously had to work for his victory down the lane and it was an exciting stretch battle between him and Blazing Sevens, but Kentucky Derby winner Mage had little chance to get involved, given the modest early tempo. This was probably the slowest renewal of the Preakness in 30 years since Prairie Bayou clinched a championship over a modest crew in 1993. However, I don't see this version having much in the way of long-term championship implications, given the dynamics involved.
Were you surprised by the Black-Eyed Susan (G2) upset?
JS: For those viewing Faiza as a vulnerable odds-on favorite, Taxed shouldn’t have come as a surprise. She wasn’t my top selection, I went a different direction against Faiza but Taxed certainly merited respect, training forwardly for the Kentucky Oaks (G1) before failing to draw in from the also-eligible list. Her improving form was easy to spot, netting a career-best Brisnet Speed and Pace numbers for her runner-up effort in April’s Fantasy (G3), and the gray filly continued to progress with a strong showing from off the pace.
KR: I wasn’t surprised that there was an upset in the Black-Eyed Susan, being a bit skeptical of Faiza. But it was the classic case of right idea, wrong horse; Merlazza was my hope to jump up on the day. Not as clever as Vance was to itemize the good points of Taxed, I’d underestimated her growth potential. But with the benefit of hindsight, the clues were there, and nothing is to be deducted from her performance at Pimlico. It’s also a great result for young sire Collected to get a major winner in his first crop, and considering how well he progressed with maturity, Taxed should keep filling her coffers. It was also a relief to see Hoosier Philly recapture some of her former spark after disappointing efforts at Fair Grounds.
VH: Having publicly stated my support for Taxed beforehand, I was not surprised that she won, though the ease at which she did was a slight surprise. I felt odds-on favorite Faiza was potentially vulnerable, given she had been beating weak opposition in Southern California (sometimes not too convincingly) and had not yet experienced the effects of shipping for a race. Taxed had shown signs of life with blinkers off in the Fantasy, finishing a good second to Wet Paint, who remains one of the better fillies in the division despite her fourth-place run as the favorite in the Kentucky Oaks. I have doubts whether Taxed is good enough to make a run for division honors during the second half of the season but, to me, a mild step forward off of her Fantasy performance figured to be sufficient to make her a serious Black-Eyed Susan contender. And so it proved.
What else is noteworthy from Preakness weekend?
JS: Baffert spoke of possibly a cutback in distance for Arabian Lion after a runner-up in the 1 1/16-mile Lexington (G3) on April 15, but the frontrunning colt is now under consideration for the 1 1/2-Belmont (G1) following a sharp win in Saturday’s Sir Barton S., netting a 102 Speed rating for the four-length decision at 1 1/16 miles. National Treasure was fortunate his stablemate wasn’t in the Preakness field, he would have been stalking the pace rather than setting it, and Arabian Lion would add speed to the third leg of the Triple Crown.
KR: The Gallorette (G3) could end up being a key race in the turf female division. The impressive Whitebeam was traveling like the winner long before she was turned loose, and in his postrace comments, Brown raved about her prospects. But a few of her beaten rivals are also worth watching. Two of the Graham Motion runners, Sopran Basilea and Vergara, are arguably better over longer distances. Sopran Basilea in particular was a wildcard in her U.S. premiere, having competed generally over softer going in Italy. Her ability to close from last for second, in a 1 1/16-mile affair on a lightning-quick course, bodes very well. Stablemate Vergara was outkicked in fifth, but the Noble Mission filly wasn’t suited by a sit-sprint race shape at this distance, especially off the bench. Look for her to improve. Also deserving a mulligan was Brown’s other runner, Eminent Victor, who had a messy trip and checked out in last.
From a worldwide perspective, Japanese champion Liberty Island’s six-length rout of the Yushun Himba (Japanese Oaks) (G1) was the most spectacular display over the weekend. The fillies’ Triple Crown is there for the taking in the Shuka Sho (G1), assuming she’s still healthy come Oct. 15. Then dare we hope for a showdown with Equinox, the world’s highest-rated horse? Liberty Island’s connections are already raising hopes of international travel in 2024.
VH: Preakness weekend held its own from a betting perspective. Handle was basically even for Black-Eyed Susan Day, and if not for a weak edition of the Preakness itself, the Saturday card would have surely shown handle gains over last year. I don't know what the answer is to get horsemen more interested in the Preakness, though having more capable three-year-olds in the hands of a greater quantity of horsemen would be a good start. What I do suspect is that pushing the race back a week or two, as some have been vociferously clamoring for for years, is something the general public won't support with their dollars, especially with other distractions like Memorial Day weekend and graduations the focal point for many people in late May and early June.
The kind of races Pimlico is carding on Preakness weekend could use some tweaking, for sure. As they are unable to adequately fund all the stakes they want to offer as well as Churchill Downs and Belmont Park can, they'd be better off beefing up purses in a select few of their historically significant stakes (especially the turf ones) and then filling out the cards with overnight events more likely to have bigger fields. Bettors across the nation would undoubtedly embrace this, rather than deal with odds-on stickouts in six- or seven-horse Grade 3s or Listed events. I made this argument way back in 2009, and I offer it again as it apparently went over like a lead balloon the first time.