Using Trends That Matter to Handicap the Preakness Stakes

Always Dreaming (photo by Jordan Sigmon).

Always Dreaming (photo by Jordan Sigmon).

Following a 2017 Kentucky Derby that lacked a clear-cut favorite going in, but featured a potential superstar coming out in the form of impressive winner Always Dreaming, the Preakness Stakes has drawn a field of 10 horses. Of the nine challengers expected to face Always Dreaming, four are coming out of the Kentucky Derby, while the rest are new shooters taking a shot at ending a potential dream run to a second Triple Crown in the last three years.

The 2017 Preakness Stakes will be run on Saturday, May 20 in its usual spot two weeks after the Kentucky Derby.  With the Kentucky Derby winner and other top 3-year-olds heading to Baltimore for the Preakness, plus more top horses lining up for a total of 14 other stakes races – including five graded events – to be run on Friday and Saturday, now is the perfect time for handicappers to start turning their attention to Pimlico.

The Preakness Stakes has been a chalk-players’ haven in recent years, but the second jewel of horseracing’s Triple Crown nevertheless should not be overlooked by handicappers and horseplayers looking for value in a race that is the cornerstone of one of the best racing and wagering days of the entire year.

Even though the Preakness has not been trending toward longshots in recent years – the second-favorite won in 2016 with Exaggerator paying $7.20 and the favorite won in 2015 when American Pharoah paid a not-so-bad-in-hindsight $3.80 – the Preakness can still yield good payoffs.

Remember that Oxbow won in 2013 and paid $32.80, while keying several good exotics payoffs. In so doing, he showed bettors that a horse still could win the Preakness at a price.

Just because the recent trend in the Preakness has pointed toward chalk, that doesn’t mean that astute horseplayers can’t make money if they know some important factors to look for in the race. To be successful handicapping the Preakness, you only need to focus on a few key trends – including form, post positions, and running style angles – that have pointed to the majority of Preakness winners and exotics horses in recent years. These key factors can help you come up with the few main contenders on which to key your bets.

Before we get started, however, I want to address one common misconception that often affects how horseplayers handicap the Preakness — mainly, the notion that Pimlico has “tighter turns” than Churchill Downs. The fact is Pimlico’s turns are no “tighter” than any other mile track’s layout, including Churchill. The turns may appear different than other tracks based on Pimlico’s steep banking, but Pimlico’s home stretch is actually 27 yards shorter than Churchill’s.

The reason I mention the myth about the supposedly tight turns at Pimlico is because that misconception often leads to another prominent misconception — that Pimlico is strictly an inside-biased track.

For years, handicappers have referred to Pimlico as an inside speed track, when in reality, for nearly a decade since 2005, they have been only half right.  Pimlico is, in fact, still generally a speed-biased track. Early speed horses and front runners (horses on the pace or within 2 lengths of the front at the first call) have the preferred winning running style at every distance on Pimlico’s main track.  However, in recent years, Pimlico has shown very little statistical indication that the rail, or any of the inside posts for that matter, are any better than the middle or outside posts.

This perceived inside bias, or lack thereof, is important for horseplayers to note when handicapping races at Pimlico, because the horses drawing the inside posts are almost always overbet due to their post positions. Since the inside posts no longer offer any statistical aid to a horse’s chances of winning, however, handicappers are often left with overlay odds on the horses breaking from the middle or outside gates. 

Accept Current Preakness Realities 

Steve Coburn, owner of 2014 Preakness winner California Chrome, famously had a temper tantrum after his horse’s unsuccessful Triple Crown bid in the Belmont Stakes three weeks later. He criticized horses for skipping the Preakness and pointing straight for the Belmont. What he should have been doing, however, was being thankful for all of the good horses that skipped the Preakness that year, because they essentially gave his horse a walk-over at Pimlico, as they chose to wait for the Belmont instead.

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This is the new reality of the Preakness Stakes. With just two weeks between the 1 ¼-mile Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, there are fewer and fewer Derby losers coming back to run in Baltimore and more horses pointing to the Preakness as “new shooters” after missing, skipping or not qualifying for the Kentucky Derby.

This is clearly evident again in 2017.  Of the 19 also-rans from the Kentucky Derby, only four are pointing for the Preakness – Lookin at Lee (second in the Derby), Classic Empire (fourth), Gunnevera (seventh) and Hence (11th).

On the other side of the ledger, you have the new shooters; however, these horses are typically of inferior quality to the runners in the Derby. This usually sets up a scenario where the Derby winner actually has a much easier assignment in the Preakness than heshe did when winning the Run for the Roses. This leads to favorites winning — and generally paying very low odds when they do.

Coburn’s rant was ignorant, but tangentially poignant when it comes to handicapping the Preakness.  In the new landscape of the Triple Crown, the trend is going more and more against horses running in all three races.  Every horse points for the Kentucky Derby and most of the main 3-year-old contenders will run in that race. After the Derby, however, the choice for most horses simply becomes whether to point for either the Preakness or the Belmont, or neither, but not both.

What that means in terms of handicapping the Preakness, is choosing between:

  • The Kentucky Derby winner (who likely will be favorite).
  • Taking select Derby also-rans.
  • Trying the new shooters whose connections feel that their better chance of winning a classic will be in the shorter Preakness, as opposed to the much longer Belmont Stakes.

Therefore, one of the most relevant handicapping trends bettors should focus on when making their Preakness picks is where the horse’s last race was and how well the horse did in that race.

Of the 20 Preakness winners from 1997 to 2016, eleven were Derby winners (55 percent), three had hit the board in the Derby (not including Shackleford in 2011, who was fourth) and three had skipped the Derby entirely in order to point directly for the Preakness. The three recent Preakness winners that skipped the Derby – Rachel Alexandra in 2009, Bernardini (2006) and Red Bullet (2000) – all exited good efforts in other top races.

Rachel Alexandra demolished the field in the Kentucky Oaks and Bernardini and Red Bullet had finished in the exacta in the Wood Memorial in their most recent races before being pointed directly to the Preakness.

Since it seems to be important for Preakness candidates to have won or run well in the Derby, or to have skipped the Derby to point for the Preakness following a good effort in a top-caliber stakes race, horses that have good chances in the Preakness based on this angle include the superfecta finishers in the Kentucky Derby, plus select new shooters who finished first or second in a major Grade 1 prep race (including, for example, the Wood Memorial, Arkansas Derby or the Kentucky Oaks). Other Preakness new shooters, or horses well-beaten in the Derby, are likely just taking shots in the Preakness and probably won’t be serious contenders at Pimlico.

According to this angle, there will be three legitimate challengers to ALWAYS DREAMING in the Preakness:

  • LOOKIN AT LEE (second in Kentucky Derby)
  • CLASSIC EMPIRE (fourth in the Kentucky Derby)
  • CONQUEST MO MONEY (second in Arkansas Derby).

Bet Outside Posts and Bet Against Inside Horses 

As mentioned earlier in this article, the commonly-held beliefs about the negative impact of outside draws at Pimlico and, therefore, in the Preakness, are false, according to the statistics from Pimlico in races run since 2005, especially at the Preakness distance of 1 3/16 miles. In fact, just the opposite is true: it is the inside posts have been putrid in the Preakness.

New-Shooters

Each year at the Preakness post draw, the big story seems to be about everyone trying to avoid the far outside posts. In truth, posts 13 and 14 are rarely even relevant in the Preakness, and a horse can win from out there if they are good enough, just like Rachel Alexandra did in 2009.

Not only don’t the inside gates hold an advantage over the middle and outside posts in the Preakness, but they are actually disadvantages, both according to statistics from recent Preakness runnings, and from more recent statistics compiled from Pimlico the last several years in races run at the 1 3/16-mile distance.

Moreover, it should be noted that the rail post is the worst place your horse can break from in the Preakness, and is one of the worst possible places your horse can break from in any race all year long.

Handicappers all seem to acknowledge a rail disadvantage in the Kentucky Derby, but mostly everyone overlooks it in the Preakness. This angle paid tremendous dividends in 2013, because it helped to eliminate the Preakness favorite, Kentucky Derby winner Orb, who drew the Preakness death rail and finished out of the money at odds-on.

Of course, this angle came to an end for many handicappers in 2015 when eventual winner American Pharoah won from post 1.  But the reality is that a horse like American Pharoah has literally not come around for a generation and before his winning race, even his trainer, Bob Baffert, seemed concerned that the rail post draw could potentially derail his horse’s Triple Crown chances.

“You don’t like to be on the inside,” Baffert said.

American Pharoah was good enough to overcome the rail in the Preakness, but most horses are not — even good (but not great) horses like Orb.  Other than Tabasco Cat, who was victorious from the rail back in 1994, no other Preakness winner has come from the rail since Belly Ache in 1960.

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Cherry Wine hit the Preakness exacta from the rail in 2016, but, prior to that, it had been several years since a rail horse even hit the board in the Preakness. In fact, exactly one horse had done it from 2008 to 2015 and that was Astrology, who finished third from the rail post in 2011. Before Macho Again (in 2008), the last Preakness rail horse to even reach the superfecta was Lion Heart back in 2004.

The trend against the inside posts at the distance at Pimlico reaches beyond just the Preakness. Going back 13 years at Pimlico, posts 1-2 at the Preakness distance of 1 3/16 miles have an awful record, with American Pharoah one of the very rare winners from posts 1-2 in those races.  In 2014, California Chrome (post 3 at odds of 1-2) became the only winner even to break from one of the four inside posts winner at Pimlico at the Preakness distance since 2011.

That brings us to the subject of the other outside posts that everyone always tries to avoid in the Preakness for some unknown reason. Statistics show that the outside posts have actually been the best places to be in recent Preakness runnings. Recent Preakness winners breaking from posts eight and outward include the aforementioned Rachel Alexandria in 2009 (post 13), I’ll Have Another (post 9) in 2012, Bernardini (post 8) in 2006, Afleet Alex (post 12) in 2005, Funny Cide (post 9) in 2003, War Emblem (post 8) in 2002, Point Given (post 11) in 2001 and Silver Charm (post 10) in 1998.

In 2013, this was a tremendous angle.  In a nine-horse field in the Preakness, the top three finishers all broke from the outside half of the starting gate with Oxbow (post 6), Itsmyluckyday (post 9), and Mylute (post 5) yielding a $301.40 exacta and a $2,061.60 trifecta.  Boxing the outside half of the field (5 horses) in an exacta and trifecta for $2 each would have cost $40 and paid $301.40 for the exacta, and would have cost $120 for the trifecta that returned $2,061.60.  That made the ROI for those two bets nearly 15X bankroll.

Bet Horses With Tactical Speed 

After post position, the next factor to concentrate on when handicapping the Preakness is running style. In this department, unlike the myth of the inside bias, the commonly held notion that speed and tactical speed are good at Pimlico have proven to be mostly correct.

Exaggerator, Afleet Alex and Curlin were the rare recent examples of horses that won the Preakness with a true late-closing running style.

Last year on a sloppy track, mud-loving Exaggerator closed from eighth. Aside from his win, however, which had more to do with his preference for track condition than it had to do with running style or anything else, you have to go back to Curlin, who came from sixth to win the Preakness in 2007 after drawing the terrible two-hole in the Derby. Another notable exception was the dynamic Afleet Alex, who rallied from 10th place to win the 2005 Preakness, despite clipping heels and nearly falling turning for home.

Besides Exaggerator, Curlin and Afleet Alex, every other recent Preakness winner has been on the lead or laying no more than a few lengths off the pace at the first call.  Even when Preakness winners of the last 18 years or so came from father off the pace – such as Point Given in 2001, Red Bullet in 2000 and Charismatic in 1999 – the eventual winners in those cases still could be termed stalkers who were able to make their moves into a pace-pressing position on the backstretch.

American Pharoah outclassed the 2015 Preakness field and led wire to wire. California Chrome pressed the pace en route to winning the 2014 Preakness. Speed was also king in the 2013 Preakness, when Oxbow won the race in wire-to-wire fashion at 15-1 odds and the other two pace horses in the race, Itsmyluckyday and Mylute, held on for second and third respectively.

The 2012 Preakness winner, I’ll Have Another, stalked and pressed the pace about 2 to 2½ lengths behind the leader en route to victory over the front-running Bodemeister. Anyone who boxed the four pace-setters that year would have also hit the exacta and trifecta with third-place finisher Creative Cause.

Putting It All Together: Betting the 2017 Preakness Stakes 

When we boil it all down, the wise play(s) in the Preakness are:

  1. Horses exiting in-the-superfecta (fourth or better) finishes in the Kentucky Derby.
  2. Perhaps one standout new shooter coming off a win or place in a major Grade 1 race.

Upgrade such horses breaking from middle and outside posts in the Preakness, and downgrade any inside horses (posts 1-4). Focus mainly on speedy horses, pace-pressing or stalking contenders by using no more than one off-the-pace horse in your exotics in one of the underneath positions.

Follow these angles and you should be on your way to a profitable 2017 Preakness Stakes.

Good luck!

Noel Michaels
Noel Michaels has been involved in many aspects of thoroughbred racing for more than two decades, as a Breeders’ Cup-winning owner and as a writer, author, handicapper, editor, manager and promoter of the sport for a wide range of companies including Daily Racing Form and Nassau County Off-Track Betting.
He also is regarded as the leading source of news and information for handicapping tournaments and the author of the “Handicapping Contest Handbook: A Horseplayer’s Guide to Handicapping Tournaments”, which made his name virtually synonymous with the increasingly-popular tournament scene.
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