BALTIMORE - I have picked every winner of the Preakness since 2004, with the exception of 2006 (we'll never know whether Barbaro would have won). This race is much less complicated than the Kentucky Derby because we always have the Derby to review.
Some years, the Derby winner (Smarty Jones, 2004, and Big Brown, 2008) is so dominant, the Preakness selection is easy. Other years, Derby winners (Giacomo, 2005; Street Sense, 2007; Mine That Bird, 2009; Super Saver, 2010) got to the winner's circle because of circumstances that are not likely to be repeated.
And horses that finished behind the race winner (Afleet Alex, 2005; Curlin, 2007; Lookin At Lucky, 2010) had legitimate excuses. And 2009 was kind of a no-brainer with the brilliant Kentucky Oaks winner Rachel Alexandra coming back in the Preakness.
The Preakness is simply a truer run race. Which brings us to tomorrow. The best horse almost always wins. My initial impression of Derby winner Animal Kingdom was that he was still running hard when he hit the finish line. I did not think there was anything ambiguous about the result.
You just have to forget the horse was 20-1. That was mostly because he was a mystery on dirt, a surface he never worked on until a week before the Derby. On form, Animal Kingdom was much lower than 20-1. Now that we know he likes dirt, Animal Kingdom is the right favorite.
I have gone back and watched the Derby many times, focusing on the five horses that are back running in the Preakness. After watching, my initial impression has not changed. Animal Kingdom won by nearly 3 lengths. There was nothing fluky about any of it. He really should win again.
But . . .
Animal Kingdom had 6 weeks between races before the Derby. Now, only 2 weeks.
"Two weeks would bother anybody," Animal Kingdom's trainer Graham Motion said. "It's not something you set out to run back in 2 weeks when a horse has run obviously the best race of his career. It's not a natural thing to do. The biggest thing is he hasn't missed a meal since he ran."
Obviously, Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex, Curlin, Big Brown, Rachel and Lookin at Lucky had no issue with 2 weeks. So, it can be done.
"It's the first time the horse will have the same jockey ride him two races in a row," Motion said. "And that's got to be an advantage to us, I think."
John Velazquez picked up the Derby mount the day before after the connections did not believe Robby Albarado would be healthy enough to ride. "Johnny V" rides AK back.
Motion spent the first 10 years of his training career based at Laurel. His horses raced on the Maryland circuit, so running in the Preakness is a big deal.
"The biggest thing is coming to the Preakness with a Derby winner," Motion said. "I think that's something everybody wants to do. I never imagined doing it, quite honestly."
Animal Kingdom closed from 12th to win the Derby even though the early pace was tepid. With Shackleford, Flashpoint, Astrology and Dance City in this race, the pace definitely should be quick and perhaps contested. Which can only help the deep closers and off-the-pace types.
That group also would include the tough Mucho Macho Man (third in the Derby) and Dialed In, eighth in the Derby as the favorite.
"You don't like to say 'throw out the Derby,' but a lot of horses have done that over the years - whether they don't get a break the way the race is run or they have traffic problems," said Nick Zito, Dialed In's trainer. "In our case, we didn't get a break the way the race was run. We've got a lot of people starting to give him credit for the race he ran."
The trainer is not making it up. Dialed In was last in the 19-horse field behind that slow pace. He passed 11 horses in the final half-mile.
"They ran the slowest first three-quarters in the Derby since 1947 and my horse ran the second-fastest [final] half-mile [in 47.02 seconds]," Zito said. "Only Secretariat ran a faster final half [46.4]."
All true, but Dialed In was still 7 1/2 lengths behind Animal Kingdom at the finish. Can he make up that ground with a hotter pace up top and fewer horses to pass? Possibly, but the reality is that Dialed In has never run fast enough to win a race like the Preakness.
If Dialed In does get there, the colt's connections would get a North American-record $6.1 million payday. The Preakness' $5.5 million bonus would give owner Bob LaPenta $5 million and Zito $500,000. The colt is eligible because he won the Holy Bull and Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park, another track run by Pimlico's owners. Add it to the $600,000 Preakness first prize and you have $6.1 million.
Afleet Alex and Smarty Jones have a son each in the race. Sway Away, Alex' son, made a giant middle move in the Arkansas Derby, a race Smarty and Alex won. He was entered in the Derby, but did not get in because of insufficient earnings. He is in with a serious chance.
Smarty's son Concealed Identity won the Federico Tesio at Pimlico on Derby Day. The gelding is trained by 80-year-old Eddie Gaudet. Remember the eye injury Smarty got as a 2-year-old? Well, Concealed Identity lost his right eye after he won the Maryland Juvenile Championship on Dec. 18.
King Congie, owned by West Point Thoroughbreds, of Mount Laurel, N.J., and named for its first employee and huge Temple sports fan, Congie DeVito, will be ridden by Albarado, who lost the mount on the Derby winner. Pennsylvania-bred Norman Asbjornson made his debut last September at Parx Racing.
I think that hot pace that never developed is going down here. So, I am dismissing all the early pace horses and looking for the best late runners.
"I'm not sure whether we've seen the best of him," Motion said of his horse.
"It was probably the best eighth-place finish in Kentucky Derby history," Zito said of his horse.
I also agree. But I still like first more than eighth.
I liked Animal Kingdom's trainer a lot more than I liked the horse before the Derby. I still like the trainer, and it's hard not to like the horse now.
Motion turns 47 the day after the Preakness. He could age a few months in the next 3 weeks. Make it Animal Kingdom again. And on to Belmont Park for a run at the elusive Triple Crown again. *