Fact: while the Kentucky Derby is the most famous race in America that everyone wants to win, and the Belmont is the "Test of the Champion", the Triple Crown race most likely to produce a champion is the Preakness.
Really? Well, yes. 11 of the last 13 Preakness winners were later crowned 3yo colt of the year, and three of them (Charismatic in '99, Point Given in '01 and Curlin in '07) won Horse of the Year. By contrast, only 7 Derby and 3 Belmont winners won an Eclipse that year. One of the two exceptions was last year's winner, super filly Rachel Alexandra, who was ineligible to win the 3yo colts' Eclipse Award, but instead won the 3yo filly Eclipse and Horse of the Year. That leaves 2000 winner Red Bullet as the one real exception to the rule, who won in a crazy year where eventual champion Tiznow came from nowhere to win the Breeders Cup Classic.
Why has this been the case? Well, in this time span, 7 Preakness winners were also Derby winners, and 2 Preakness winners also won the Belmont. Win 2 Triple Crown races and you'd need something really goofy to happen to lose the Eclipse Award. But the other big reason is that of the three Triple Crown races, the Preakness most resembles a regular horse race. The Derby is a unique race: a 20-horse field, a 160,000 person crowd, a new distance for all the runners, and the presence of a slew of horses with little or no chance that can make it impossible for some contenders to win. (Just ask the connections of Ice Box.) The Belmont is run at a mile and a half on the dirt, a distance that horses are rarely bred for and will likely never run again, making it an anomaly in modern racing and producing quirky results. (Commendable? Da'Tara? Sarava?)
By contrast, the format of the Preakness is quite similar to most Grade 1 races. The field size is usually 8-11, and will never be larger than 14. The distance (9 1/2 furlongs) isn't too far and for many of these horses, is shorter than their previous race (the Derby) or only a little longer than a prior race. Traffic trouble is less of a problem because of the smaller field. And Pimlico generally plays pretty fair to front-runners and closers. In many respects, it's the "truest" of the Triple Crown races.
Which is why you rarely see a longshot win the Preakness. In this same 13-year span, we've seen only two horses win the race at odds over 5-1. One was Charismatic, who had just won the Derby at 31-1, and stupidly, most people thought he couldn't do it again. He won easily at 8-1. The other was Bernardini (2006), who was 13-1 partly because he only had 3 prior starts and partly because he was running against Barbaro, who was 1-2.
What this means is that the Preakness isn't the race to go bomb hunting unless there's a phenom you love or the public is ignoring the fave for some reason. Does either exception apply here? Let's count them down in reverse order of likelihood.
Watch Yourselves Out There, Kids
12. Northern Giant. D. Wayne Lukas is arguably the best trainer in this history of the Preakness with 5 wins. Sadly, the last one came in 1995, and he hasn't had a horse finish in the money since 2003. Given that this guy has zero wins on a dry dirt track, finished DAFL in the Arkansas Derby and is painfully slow, we think he's not going to get Lukas off the schneid.
11. Yawanna Twist. The highlight of his career to date has been non-threatening 2nds to Awesome Act and American Lion, two horses who lost the Derby by a combined 80 lengths. His next highlight will come when he wins the New York Derby at Finger Lakes Racetrack in July.
Good Horse in a Bad Spot
10. Schoolyard Dreams. Barely lost the Tampa Bay Derby 2 races back (beating Super Saver in the process, who hadn't run in 4 months), he was throttled in the Wood despite getting a perfect trip. He looks like a perfectly fine Grade 3 horse that can win a G1 or G2 if he catches a weak field and a bunch of things break his way. Neither applies here.
9. Dublin. This horse has zero wins beyond 7 furlongs in 6 tries, and hasn't improved his speed figures in about 9 months. The Preakness will make it 7 tries with no success. Why even bother with a route race? Why not aim for something like the Woody Stephens and King's Bishop?
The Derby Did Not Tell Us Much
8. Jackson Bend. Trainer Nick Zito didn't love that this guy was 12+ lengths out of it in the Derby and has vowed that he'll be closer to the pace in the Preakness. That's fine and good, but it doesn't change that this horse is winless in open company and doesn't appear to be fast enough to compete for the win slot and has zero acceleration. Look for him to menace near the lead on the far turn, and get passed by half the field in the stretch.
7. Paddy O'Prado. After we mocked this guy, he turned around and ran 3rd in the Derby. Guess what? We're still against. We've now got proof that he's good on turf, synthetics and slop, which is not uncommon. We still have no proof that this guy will be any good on a fast track, which is what he'll get on Saturday. Additionally, he was gasping for air at the end of the Derby and his jockey (Kent Desormeaux) has been fighting allegations that he gave up on the race late. He's a very likely candidate to be overbet (5-1?) and regress badly in the Preakness.
Newcomers for Exotic Purposes Only
6. Pleasant Prince. Lost by a nose to Derby runner-up Ice Box in the Florida Derby. In an effort to get enough winnings to make the Derby, lost horribly in the Blue Grass and ran a blase 3rd in the Derby Trial. He rates better than some because he has excuses for his last two losses--they were on synthetic and in the slop, respectively--but he's a stone closer in a race that lacks a ton of early speed. Has a shot to clunk up and his the superfecta at an OK price.
5. Aikenite. Todd Pletcher's "other" horse in the race, he's also a stone closer with a shot to clunk up at a price. We rank him slightly higher because we think he'll be a longer price than Pleasant Prince and like that he's coming in a little fresher. There's almost zero chance this guy could win (if he has a shot, would Pletcher be running him and ruining a Triple Crown bid?), but at 30-1, he's exactly the kind of horse you should throw in the bottom slot of your trifectas and supers.
4. First Dude. He's accomplished even less than Aikenite and Pleasant Prince, but he has tactical speed that the last two horses lack. He also has run three straight 9 furlong races which we like; we think he'll have a good foundation to get the distance (unlike, say, Yawanna Twist). And he's sporting a pair of bullet workouts. Could stick around and hit the board at a huge price.
3. Super Saver. Has there ever been less enthusiasm over a Derby winner that wasn't an upset? Most of the discussion and accolades over the past two weeks has been over Calvin Borel, Todd Pletcher, and Ice Box (who many argue should have won). Almost nobody has been arguing that this horse is the next coming of Unbridled, let alone Affirmed, and while he'll probably be the favorite in the Preakness, it'll probably be a tempered 5-2/3-1 choice.
Those are tempting odds to take on a well-bred, well-connected horse that just won the Derby, but we don't love him here. We don't love Pletcher horses coming back in 2 weeks--we know few trainers do it these days, but Pletcher never runs a horse back that quickly, which is partially why he's had so few Preakness runners (none of which have done anything). We think there's no way he gets as good a trip here as he got in the Derby; in fact, that's going to be impossible, because his Derby trip was perfect. And we're wondering if he's just a Churchill Downs freak. He's 2-for-2 at Churchill and 1-for-5 elsewhere. It's a little reminiscent of 2007 winner Street Sense, who was a monster at Churchill and just very good elsewhere. And he got beat in the Preakness. We think he contends but ultimately loses.
2. Caracortado. The new shooter with a chance. For all the chatter about how horrible Lookin at Lucky's trip was in the Santa Anita Derby, few focused on this guy's horrible trip, which probably cost him 3rd place. He's a pretty honest runner with tactical speed, an underrated trainer, and breeding that looks obscure but is actually quite good--his sire was a high-priced , well-bred Storm Cat horse that had an early career ending injury, and his dam is out of Maria's Mon, who's the sire of Super Saver. Yes, he has no real dirt experience (his 4 furlong debut doesn't count) and his jockey is someone we don't know too well. But he'll probably be about 15-1 with a real chance to do some damage. We think he's a must-use not only in exotics but in multi-race wagers.
1. Lookin at Lucky. Many want to argue that Ice Box was the best horse that didn't win the Derby, but we're pretty sure it's this guy. Pinched at the start and roughed up a furlong into the race, he was 20 lengths out of it early, which is not his game. He rallied belatedly and pretty well to only lose by 7 lengths on a day where he got no racing luck and was on a sloppy surface that he didn't love. Now he turns back slightly in distance, gets a new jockey (Garrett Gomez is one of the best in the business, but had no luck on this guy), and should get a much, much, much better trip in a smaller field that lacks a true speedball. More importantly, we think he's just the best horse in this class. And if we're going with the theory that the top horse of the class will win the Preakness, he's the most likely winner.
Playing the Race
We suspect that both Lookin at Lucky and Super Saver will be around 3-1, and if so, they and everyone else you like is worth a win bet, because tripling your money is nothing to sneeze at. If you like a longshot like Caracortado or First Dude, look to playing them in doubles or Pick Threes; their odds will be even longer in the multi-race wagers (and by contrast, LAL, SS and Paddy O'Prado will likely be shorter in those bets).
Good luck to all!