The last time that the Preakness was run without the Kentucky Derby winner was 1996, when Grindstone was retired because of knee issues. The last time none of the top four Derby finishers went to the middle jewel of racing’s Triple Crown season was 1951, because none of them were nominated in time.
All that changes on Saturday.
Derby winner Country House is sick and not at the Preakness. Maximum Security, the horse that crossed the line first and was then disqualified, isn’t at the Preakness. Derby runner-up Code of Honor is being pointed to the Dwyer Stakes in July. Derby third-place finisher Tacitus is likely to return in three weeks at the Belmont.
That’s all good and bad news for the Preakness.
The bad news: There’s no Triple Crown winner this year, and intrigue takes an obvious hit without the Derby principals in the field.
The good news: For bettors, this race should be as wide open — if not more so — than the Derby was.
To illustrate how wide-open this race looks, consider that there are some serious and legitimate arguments to be made for Bodexpress to win the Preakness. Bodexpress has never won a race. The last time a maiden won the Preakness was in 1888, yet Bodexpress — second in the Florida Derby to Maximum Security — can’t be thrown out here.
Bodexpress is one of only four horses who is in the Preakness after competing in the Derby. War of Will and Improbable will likely be the top two betting choices at post time, and Win Win Win will be taking plenty of money at the windows as well.
Some of the newcomers, they just seem out of place.
Everfast doesn’t seem to be aptly named; he won his debut race last year and is 0 for 9 since, with his best finish in that stretch being a second at the Holy Bull in February at 129-1 odds. (Yes, 129-1. He was second to Harvey Wallbanger, who stole the race at a mere 30-1 and they teamed up for an $1,100 return on a $1 exacta.)
Market King needed five tries to break his maiden and hasn’t won since, though attention should be paid whenever the legendary trainer D. Wayne Lukas has a horse in the Preakness. Signalman is decent, but wouldn’t seem Preakness-worthy.
But some look very live. Alwaysmining (a Maryland-bred who has won six consecutive races by a combined 36 1/2 lengths), Warrior’s Charge (not used to this level of competition, but a winner of two straight and both were in romps), Owendale (a winner last time out and coming off some impressive morning works), and Anothertwistafate (no worse than second in any of his last five starts) all should be in the mix.
If it sounds like there’s no clear-cut favorite, that’s because there isn’t.
There just seems to be a lot of horses with similar running styles and similar abilities. It’s very even. There’s 13 horses, not 20 like in the Derby, so there’s less chance for chaos as well. And although some say the inside post isn’t favorable at Pimlico, the run to the first turn is so long that the rail wouldn’t seem to be much of a deterrent. For that matter, being on the outside isn’t such a bad thing either.
So that means the race probably comes down to which jockey executes the best trip.
And that would point us to Mike Smith.
Big Money Mike, as he’s now called, takes his turn Saturday aboard Improbable — who’ll have his fourth jockey in as many starts. Smith and seven-time Preakness winning trainer Bob Baffert are a lethal combination. Improbable will be bet down big-time, probably going off no better than 3-1, maybe even lower. There won’t be any value there.
He’s the safe play.
But is Improbable the best closer? Probably not. In this race, where plenty of horses are going to expend probably more energy than they should to get near the front early on, the right play is to go with the best finishing kick.
Bourbon War is that horse.
He wins over Improbable, Alwaysmining and Market King.