Five storylines to watch at Preakness

May 19, 2011|By Kevin Van Valkenburg, The Baltimore Sun

Here are five story lines to watch at the 136th running of the Preakness Stakes.

1. Will Animal Kingdom's fresh legs put him in position to show the world he's not only a great horse, he's a serious Triple Crown contender?

It should be fairly clear by now that Animal Kingdom's Kentucky Derby victory wasn't a fluke, even though he left the gates as a 21-1 long shot. No one knew at that point whether or not he could handle running on dirt, and since his breeding suggested he was more of a turf horse, handicappers steered clear. But Animal Kingdom's 2 3/4 length victory was arguably even more impressive than it looked. The initial pace of the race was so slow — the six furlong split was the slowest since 1947 — had the leaders gone out as fast as they normally do, he likely would have won by a much bigger margin. The son of Leroidesanimeaux has several factors working in his favor. The Preakness will be just his second race in eight weeks. His connections decision to not run him again after he won the Vinery Racing Spiral Stakes in late March looks brilliant in retrospect. That fortuitous turn of events should mean he'll be better equipped to handle the two-week turnaround than previous Derby winners, and up to the challenge of facing fresh horses who didn't enter the first leg of the Triple Crown. His trainer, Graham Motion, may not be a household name just yet, but he knows Pimlico well. He's run horses in the Preakness several times during his career, including in 2009 when he finished third with Ichabod Crane. Because his style and stamina requires that he come from off the early pace to win, Animal Kingdom does need a good trip, even with an experienced jockey like John Velazquez, and he'll need to do it in a full 14-horse field.

2. How will a week of rain affect the track at Pimlico?

The weather forecast is calling for clear skies and sunshine on Saturday, but rain has been pounding the Pimlico track throughout the week. Will the track be dry and fast when it comes time for Maryland's premier race? Or will a touch of mud remain, slowing down the entire field and turn it into a race anyone can win? A big, powerful horse like Mucho Macho Man could make a strong bid if Animal Kingdom gets bogged down on a wet track. Midnight Interlude also won on a wet track at the Santa Anita Derby, so he could be in intriguing pick also.

3. Unlike people, horses aren't motivated by money. But if they were, Dialed In would certainly be an interesting pick this week.

If Dialed In were to bounce back from an eight place finish in the Derby and win the Preakness, it would be quite the financial windfall for owner Robert LaPenta. In fact, it would be the most lucrative day in the history of North American thoroughbred racing. In addition to the $600,000 awarded to the winner, Dialed In is eligible for a $5.5 million bonus because he won both the Florida Derby and the Holy Bull Stakes during the Derby prep season. The bonus is being offered up by MI Developments, the parent company that owns Pimlico Race Track. Trainer Nick Zito said he wasn't thinking at all about the money. Dialed In was the betting favorite in the Kentucky Derby, but he got squeezed a bit at the start of the race and never recovered.

4. Will a fresh horse steal the show?

Nine of the 14 horses entered in the Preakness did not run in the Kentucky Derby, which should be an advantage in terms of fatigue. But "shooters" haven't owned the Preakness the way one might suspect. In the past 10 years, only three horses — Red Bullet in 2000, Bernardini in 2006 and Rachael Alexandra in 2009 — won the Preakness without having run in the Derby. And Rachael Alexandra did it coming off a dominant performance in the Kentucky Oaks, not a long layoff. What can be surmised from that stat? A good horse is a good horse, and he'll typically run well despite the quick turnaround. Dance City seems like the one shooter who might have a real chance. The Todd Pletcher-trained colt has shown steady improvement in every race, and looked strong finishing third in a very competitive Arkansas Derby.

5. Could trainer Bob Baffert find a way to win his favorite race yet again?

Bob Baffert likes to call the Preakness his favorite leg of the Triple Crown. He loves the wild infield crowd, he prefers the laid-back atmosphere of the barn area, and he feels it's a lot more fun because there is less pressure than running in the Kentucky Derby. Over the years, he's also been extremely successful in Baltimore. His win last year with Lookin At Lucky was his fifth, tying him with D. Wayne Lukas for the most in the modern era. (R. Wyndham Walden won seven in the late 1800s; Thomas J. Healey won five prior to 1929). Baffert's horse this year, Midnight Interlude, is coming off a disappointing 16th place finish in the Derby, but Baffert believes that wasn't indicative of his quality and that he'll run much better this week.

kvanvalkenburg@baltsun.com

twitter.com/kvanvalkenburg

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