Geno’s Best Bet – “Wide Open Preakness”
BALTIMORE — For the first time since 1996, the Kentucky Derby winner will miss the Preakness Stakes, presenting bettors with a wide open race on Saturday afternoon.
Pimlico Race Course will host a field of 13 that will race in the 144th Preakness in front of a national television audience and a six-figure crowd on the north west side of Baltimore.
What the largest field since 2011 offers is plenty of betting opportunities, with only four Derby entries running back after the controversial finish at Churchill Downs two weeks ago. The Preakness will be run at 1 3/16-miles, one-sixteenth of a mile shorter than the Derby for a $1.65 million purse.
The race is scheduled to go to post at 6:48 p.m. EDT on NBC (Ch. 2) with coverage starting at 2 p.m. on NBC Sports Network and switching to the mothership at 5 p.m.
Country House, the Derby winner via disqualification, is on the sidelines with an ailment and Maximum Security’s owners decided to go to Monmouth and wait for summer racing for the colt that crossed the wire first on Derby day.
This wild and wacky Triple Crown season started with 50- and 100-point prep series races in which only one horse (Omaha Beach) won more than once and he scratched the week of the race. Enter the controversial disqualification that still has folks chirping and lawyers filing lawsuits on the eve of the middle jewel.
To add to the wackiness, the Preakness morning line favorite, Improbable (5-2), who also was the Derby post-time favorite, has yet to win a race in calendar year 2019.
What does this all tell us? It’s time to swing for the fences.
Improbable will look to give trainer Bob Baffert a record-breaking eighth Preakness win and his second in a row after winning with Justify last year.
My Derby pick got bottled up inside at Churchill, but had a relatively clean trip and was able to get outside for the stretch run, but his wheels started spinning and finished fifth before being moved up to fourth after the disqualification.
Mike Smith gets the mount for Baffert, with Derby rider Irad Ortiz, Jr. jumping aboard Bourbon War (12-1) in the Preakness. Smith, who rode Justify to last year’s Triple Crown, was bullish on Improbable in last week’s national teleconference with the media.
“Well, I certainly think that we haven’t seen his best race yet, although he has shown signs of brilliance at different times,” said Smith. “You know, if I can just get on him for the first time, which sometimes really works well for me and get him to run one of those AA-plus races. He’s not without a huge chance of, you know, winning the whole thing.”
At 5-2 odds, he’ll likely be around just on class, as he tested Omaha Beach at Oaklawn in the Arkansas Derby and he’ll definitely enjoy the dry track, but at those odds in a big field, it’s better to search elsewhere.
The race appears to have some decent pace to it, with War of Will (4-1) likely firing from the rail and Warrior’s Charge (12-1) and Alwaysmining (8-1) likely to be on the engine early.
Trainer Brad Cox could have the best of both worlds with his two colts, Warrior’s Charge and Owendale (10-1). With the speedy Warrior’s Charge going to the lead early and trying to take them around the Pimlico oval, it could set up Owendale (10-1) for a late finishing kick and a run at the leaders.
He won the Grade 3 Lexington Stakes in mid-April, but did not have enough Derby qualifying points to run for the roses, so his connections pointed the son of Into Mischief towards Baltimore. His dam sire Bernardini won the 2006 Preakness, so the bloodlines are present. Florent Geroux will ride out of post No. 2.
Cox joked that his two horses shouldn’t get in each other’s way at all on Thursday morning, hinting that Warrior’s Charge will definitely see if he can take it all the way on the front end.
He also was pleased with the way Owendale is training and loves the way he is set up for Saturday.
“He’s moving well,” said Cox. “He’s really clicking on all cylinders right now. I’m really happy with the way he’s moving. With the speed up front, the more speed is probably the better for him.”
Cox trained Monomoy Girl to last year’s 3-year-old filly championship to make his first mark on the racing world. His Preakness colts are the first two classic starters of his young career.
“It’s huge for our team, we’re excited about it,” Cox said. “We’ve been waiting for this race for Owendale for the last four or five weeks.”
Another horse that should relish the pace and make a late run is Bourbon War, trained by New York-based conditioner Mark Hennig. He’ll also be looking for his first classic win, and is a disciple of the D. Wayne Lukas training tree.
He made a big run in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth, closing late to finish second behind Code of Honor, who ran very well in the Derby two weeks ago. His Florida Derby was ho-hum, but only because of the dawdling pace where Maximum Security ran away from the field after slow early fractions.
With the defections of the top four from the Derby, Hennig felt it was worth taking a shot at the middle jewel, especially with the strong performances by the horses coming out of south Florida this winter.
“Had the Florida horses not run well, or if Omaha Beach had been in the race and won by 10 or someone else did, then you might be like, ‘Maybe we need to take a more conservative approach,’ said Hennig. “With the result the way it was and the confidence we have in our own horse, we just thought it was silly not to give him the opportunity to be in a Triple Crown race.”
Like Owendale, Bourbon War will be coming late at the leaders and warrants a solid look at 8-1 or higher. The son of Tapit will race for the first time equipped with short-cup blinkers to keep him more focused and on the bridle on Saturday.
The colt that won the local prep, the Federico Tesio Stakes, also warrants consideration. Alwaysmining (8-1) has won six straight races at nearby Laurel Park and would give trainer Kelly Rubley the distinction of becoming the first female trainer to win the Preakness.
In two of his wins, he defeated Kentucky Derby runners Win Win Win and Gray Magician showing he has some class in his past performances.
He has a front-running style and is sired by Travers winner Stay Thirsty, so the route of ground should not be an issue. The Tesio winner is typically an afterthought, but with the wide open race, he has a solid chance to hit the board. The last Tesio winner to win the Preakness was Deputed Testimony in 1983.
Post Time Outlook: 1 – Owendale; 2 – Bourbon War; 3 –Alwaysmining; 4 – Improbable
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association and tweets @EquiSpace.