Top 5 storylines for 2024 Preakness Stakes

May 17th, 2024

The scratch of morning line favorite Muth dominated the headlines on Wednesday of Preakness Week. Moreover, it removed a pivotal talking point: would Muth confirm the form of his Arkansas Derby (G1) victory over next-out Kentucky Derby (G1) hero Mystik Dan?

Still, the Pimlico classic remains the “middle jewel” of a potential Triple Crown bid for Mystik Dan, who deserves the spotlight as the Derby winner.

Aside from the perennial angle of Derby alumni versus new shooters, here are the top five storylines for the Preakness (G1):

1. Can Mystik Dan back up his Derby performance on two weeks’ rest?

For bettors who missed out on Mystik Dan as an 18-1 shot at Churchill Downs, is it worth jumping on the bandwagon in Baltimore? After all, the value’s gone now that he’s the 8-5 favorite on the revised morning line, with a couple of questions to answer.

First is the two-week turnaround from a hard race in the Derby. Mystik Dan was the only one within striking distance of the early pace who stuck around at the finish. Threading the needle on the rail turning for home, where both he and jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. had to be pretty daring, he delivered his winning gambit fully a quarter-mile out. In the circumstances, Mystik Dan had a right to be looking for the wire, but he still found enough to hold off the scrimmaging pair of Sierra Leone and Forever Young, in the tightest three-way finish in Derby history.

That’s why trainer Kenny McPeek waited to see how Mystik Dan came out of the Derby before confirming him for the Preakness. The other time he ran back on 13 days’ rest, as a juvenile, he flopped in fifth in an allowance. Yet it’s important to note that Mystik Dan had another excuse for that subpar effort last fall – a lung infection – so it might not be wise to read too much into the timing.

The second key question revolves around Mystik Dan’s capitalizing on an ideal ground-saving ride in the Derby. While allowing for his gallantry in hanging on, his cutting the corner was decisive in edging Sierra Leone and Forever Young, both of whom lost much more ground around Churchill. They’re not here to re-oppose him, but can Mystik Dan beat this group without leveraging a similar edge on the track? On the other hand, he might well find another kind of edge, if the forecast rain arrives, and the track becomes a sea of slop (more on that below).

2. Dettori teams up with Baffert’s Imagination.

Although all-time Preakness leading trainer Bob Baffert lost his main hope in Muth, stablemate Imagination can give him a record-extending ninth win. Adding far more intrigue is his jockey, Frankie Dettori.

A legend on the international scene, Dettori racked up 23 wins in British classics. With his ambition to go after the Kentucky Derby, Dettori postponed his long-announced retirement at the end of 2023 and continued his career in Southern California. That move didn’t help much in the Derby department. To get a mount in the Run for the Roses, Dettori had to reach for New York-based longshot Society Man. His ride was more about the Derby experience than a serious win chance, and in that sense, it was mission accomplished aboard the 16th-place finisher at Churchill Downs. 

But Dettori’s winter at Santa Anita, and connection with Baffert, yielded a proper Preakness contender in Imagination. Teaming up for the first time in the San Felipe (G2), Dettori and Imagination scored a narrow victory. Next out, they missed by a neck in the Santa Anita Derby (G1) to Stronghold, who didn’t advertise the form when seventh in the Kentucky Derby.

If Imagination has not been quite up to the level of Muth, or sidelined stablemate Nysos, he does bring battle-tested consistency and a classic pedigree. The well-bred son of Into Mischief and the Grade 2-winning Empire Maker mare Magical Feeling comes from the same family as Baffert’s 2023 Preakness winner, National Treasure

Perhaps most significantly, Imagination also has tactical speed in a race without much of it, especially in Muth’s absence. Dettori knows how to take advantage in that scenario, and it would be a storybook result for him to add a U.S. classic to his historic resume.

3. Lukas double-handed in search of seventh Preakness.

Speaking of historic resumes, six-time Preakness winner D. Wayne Lukas is back at Old Hilltop with not just one, but two, solid contenders. The octogenarian Hall of Famer sends out Just Steel, who has traded decisions with Mystik Dan, and Seize the Grey. Ironically, both are by Baffert-trained Hall of Famers in Triple Crown champion Justify and Arrogate, respectively. 

Just Steel crossed swords with Mystik Dan three times on Oaklawn Park’s Road to the Kentucky Derby, finishing ahead of him twice when runner-up in the Smarty Jones S. and Arkansas Derby. Mystik Dan wasn’t seen at his best in either loss, fading to fifth after chasing the Smarty Jones pace, and winding up third after significant hampering on the clubhouse turn of the Arkansas Derby. When Mystik Dan was at his best, he drew eight lengths clear of Just Steel in the muddy Southwest (G3), and again left him well behind in 17th in the Kentucky Derby.

Of course, Just Steel can offer a rebuttal that he wasn’t seen at his best when Mystik Dan beat him. Particularly in the Kentucky Derby, Just Steel was compromised by the hot pace and understandably folded. The race shape of the Preakness figures to be more congenial for Just Steel, who could regain the advantage in his head-to-head match-ups with Mystik Dan. He also gets a rider switch to Joel Rosario.

Seize the Grey has more to prove on form. Third in the Jeff Ruby Steaks (G3) and seventh in the Blue Grass (G1), he thrived back down in distance in the Pat Day Mile (G2) on Derby Day. Yet as a royally-bred colt coming off his biggest win, Seize the Grey has the profile of a Lukas horse ready to step up on the big stage.

4. Catching Freedom, Tuscan Gold get a rematch.

The Arkansas Derby isn’t the only marquee prep to factor in Preakness calculations; two of the Louisiana Derby (G2) principals, winner Catching Freedom and third Tuscan Gold, also renew rivalry at Pimlico.

Their rematch is a microcosm of the clash between those who ran in the Kentucky Derby and those who arrive fresh. Catching Freedom, the last-to-first hero at Fair Grounds, rallied for a respectable fourth at Churchill. Tuscan Gold, a better-than-appears third in the Louisiana Derby, has been targeting the Preakness ever since.

Thus Tuscan Gold resembles trainer Chad Brown’s Preakness winners Cloud Computing (2017) and Early Voting (2022). All are lightly-raced sophomores who tested the waters on the Derby trail, but focused on the middle jewel as the right spot at that stage of their careers.

Tuscan Gold warrants particular respect given his performance in the Louisiana Derby at this 1 3/16-mile distance. Making his stakes debut, he was hung out wide throughout from post 10. He advanced to stalk the pace, but his inexperience told when he briefly lost position and got shuffled back on the far turn. Yet Tuscan Gold stayed on again down the lane, succumbing only to Catching Freedom and Honor Marie, who both came from the clouds. 

The Louisiana Derby sixth, Antiquarian, has since won the Peter Pan (G3). Perhaps a harbinger for the up-and-coming Tuscan Gold on Saturday?

But Tuscan Gold will need to progress to turn the tables on Catching Freedom, who is trainer Brad Cox’s first Derby grad to go right back into the wars here. His previous Preakness runners, Owendale and Warrior’s Charge, were classic newcomers when they finished third and fourth, respectively, in 2019. Thus Catching Freedom must stare down the same question as Mystik Dan about the two-week turnaround, while confronting a pace scenario that may also be less conducive to his style.

5. Weather watch: How wet will the track get by Preakness time?

With an 80% chance of rain in the forecast for Baltimore on Saturday, the Preakness is very likely to be contested on an off track. But will it be a total splash-fest, closer to good, or a muddy in-between?

Mystik Dan must be loving the forecast, considering that he posted his best Brisnet Speed rating (101) in his Southwest romp. Retired jockey Robby Albarado, who has been galloping the colt, made the following comments to the Preakness publicity team:

“He feels good on all tracks, but there’s something about this that he just gets over it easy. Going way back, and I’m not making a comparison, but Curlin (the Hall of Famer who won the 2007 Preakness with Albarado) was like that. On a muddy track, Curlin would just maul them. He got over it like glass, like an ice skater. This horse is similar in getting over it the same type of way.”

Who else is eligible to move up in the mud?

“Seize the Grey would be better on it,” Lukas said in the Preakness notes. “He’s already won on a wet track. I think he’d be fine. 

“The other horse, I don’t know,” Lukas added of Just Steel, who’s been beaten in both of his off-track attempts. “I’d rather it be dry for him. We’ll see. I don’t know exactly what he will do. Let’s just hope it’s dry.”

Catching Freedom was third in the Risen Star (G2) in his lone try over off going, but he was still lugging in then. It’s unclear, or questionable, if track condition had anything to do with his result.

Although Tuscan Gold has yet to race in such conditions, Brown’s assistant Jose Hernandez reported that the colt “seems to like it” in his training. By Medaglia d’Oro and out of a Curlin mare, he ought to be right in his element.

Imagination is another venturing into new territory, but progeny of Into Mischief boast an 18% strike rate in the mud. Maternal grandfather Empire Maker doesn’t hurt that profile either.  

From a big longshot perspective, Uncle Heavy is 2-for-2 on wet tracks. The Butch Reid pupil won a Pennsylvania-bred stakes last December over a good track at Parx, and his signature win in the Withers (G3) came at a muddy Aqueduct.