By Richard Rosenblatt
This much we know: The Preakness isn’t until next month, and there won’t be a Triple Crown attempt that would carry an asterisk in this year of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It is a year when the final leg of the Triple Crown was first, the first leg was second and the second leg third. It’s been a year in which Tiz the Law had been the dominant 3-year-old after winning the Belmont Stakes (the first leg) and the Travers, until the Kentucky Derby (the second leg) on Sept. 5. That’s when Authentic dashed Triple Talk with a 1 1/4-length win over Tiz the Law that gave Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert a record-tying sixth Derby victory.
And now we’re a few weeks away from the Preakness on Oct. 3 – the first time the race will be the final leg of the Triple Crown. What traditionally has been three races over a five-week span has turned into a 15-week marathon in 2020. And instead of the “Test of the Champion” at 1 ½ miles being the final event, we’ll have the Preakness, which like the Belmont and Derby will be conducted with no spectators.
Let’s take an early look at the field, starting with the letter A, as in Authentic, a front-running winner in 5-of-6 races, and Art Collector, the Blue Grass (G2) and Ellis Park Derby winner with a four-race winning streak.
Both are set to come to the 1 3/16-mile Preakness as the top two contenders. Art Collector was the Derby pick for many, but the colt was not entered due to a minor foot issue discovered just before the post-position draw.
That brings us to something we don’t know: Will Tiz the Law run? Sensational in winning his first four races of 2020 – the Holy Bull (G2) and Florida Derby (G1) preceded his Belmont and Travers victory, his trainer Barclay Tagg has been leaning against the Preakness. Jack Knowlton, managing partner for owners Sackatoga Stable, said a decision could come after a scheduled workout this weekend at Belmont Park.
While Baffert equaled “Plain Ben” Jones’ six Derby wins, the 67-year-old trainer can break a tie with 19th century trainer R. Wyndham Walden if he can pull off Preakness win No. 8. In addition to Authentic, Baffert-trained Thousand Words – scratched form the Derby shortly before the race after flipping on his side in the paddock – is Preakness bound.
Also listed by Pimlico as contenders are: Mr. Big News, a late Derby entry who finished third at 46-1 odds; King Guillermo, the Tampa Bay Derby winner who was scratched two days before the Derby with a fever; a pair of Todd Pletcher trainees in Happy Saver (3-for-3) and Dr Post (second in the Belmont but a disappointing fourth in the Jim Dandy); and Pneumatic, winner of the Pegasus Stakes who skipped the Derby in favor of preparing for the Preakness. A possible starter is Ny Traffic, eighth in the Derby following three runner-up finishes in the Louisiana Derby, Matt Win Stakes and the Haskell).
A bunch of 3-year-olds have been in the news this week: Among them was Santa Anita Derby (G1) winner Honor A.P., who was retired to Lane’s End Farm after sustaining an injury during the Kentucky Derby, where he finished fourth. Honor A.P., trained by John Shirreffs, is the only horse to beat Authentic, who ran second in the Santa Anita Derby.
Several Preakness contenders were back on the track earlier in the week, including Authentic, Thousand Words, and Art Collector.
Art Collector worked four furlongs in 48.10 seconds on Saturday (Sept. 12) at trainer Tommy Drury’s Skylight Training Center base under jockey Brian Hernandez, Jr. A weekend workout at Churchill Downs is scheduled.
“He seems good,” Drury said. “He breezed over the weekend, just kind of a maintenance half-mile. Brian felt he was as good as he’s ever been. As long as everything is going right, we’re going to shoot for Baltimore.”
Drury, a native of Louisville, was disappointed in not having what would have been his first Derby starter, but is looking forward to the Preakness.
“The timing of it is good,” Drury said. “The thing I like is that he doesn’t have to take his racetrack with him. I would expect him to do that in Baltimore as well. I’m just looking forward to giving him the opportunity to run against those horses. He may or may not have run well in the Derby had he been there. We’re certainly not going to take anything away from the winner. He ran a huge race. But we’re looking forward for our opportunity to go after him.”
With his horses training at Churchill Downs and being watched by fellow Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas, Baffert pronounced both are in fine form.
“He (Authentic) came out very well, very well,” Baffert said. “He’s ready to go. We would have been ready to go in two weeks.”
As for Thousand Words, Baffert said he’s fine.
“When he went up he sort of lost his footing and was on his side,’’ Baffert said. “He was OK and was checked out. He’s doing well.”
Jimmy Barnes, Baffert’s longtime assistant, was injured in the incident and had nine screws and a metal plate to repair his damaged right wrist.
Mr. Big News earned an automatic spot in the Preakness with his victory in the $200,000 Oaklawn Stakes at 46-1, the same odds as the Derby.
“Right now he came out of the Derby well; we’re definitely pointing that direction,” trainer Bret Calhoun said. A workout later this week will help determine his Preakness status.
“I want him to be coming into the Preakness just like he came into the Derby,” Calhoun added. “If he’s going that good, we’ll run. Who else is running really doesn’t have a big bearing.”
Pneumatic, trained by Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen, worked 5 furlongs in 1:01.40 on Sunday (Sept. 13) at Saratoga.
“He’s training really well,” Asmussen said. “Obviously we were encouraged with his Pegasus. We thought it was his strongest race to date. It appears the Derby participants have come out in good order, and the Preakness ought to be a great race.”
Opening day for the Santa Anita Park fall meet has been delayed for a week to Sept. 25 due to the impact of the Bobcat Fire on the air quality and surrounding community.
Aidan Butler, the executive director of California operations for The Stronach Group, said: “Our local community has been deeply impacted by the Bobcat Fire burning for more than a week in the mountains behind us. The current weather pattern has kept the smoke in the valley and the air quality is quite poor right now. The Red Cross is using Santa Anita as the evacuation zone for people – including many of our horsemen – whose homes are less than two miles from here.
Stakes races that were scheduled for this weekend will be brought back the following weekend, said Steve Lym, Santa Anita’s vice president for racing and racing secretary.
The Keeneland fall meet, which runs Oct. 2-24, will be closed to the public due to the COVID-19 pandemic the track announced Tuesday, but also said a limited number of participants other than essential personnel could attend the track.
“Participants include those with a competing horse, including a limited number of owners and trainers,’’ read a Keeneland news release. “Keeneland also will allow limited access to sponsors, box holders and Club members.”
There will be no general admission or walk-up attendees. Credentialed participants will be assigned a sear for the race day.
Keeneland’s five-day meet in July was held without spectators.
“The safety of our employees, our participants and our fans remains Keeneland’s top priority,” Keeneland president and CEO Bill Thomason said in a statement.
Over the years while working at The Associated Press, Rich Rosenblatt became a familiar name to legions of the horse racing fans and industry insiders with his award-winning articles on horse racing and his stories from the backstretch.
In addition to being an astute observer of sports, Rosenblatt is the co-author of The All-American Chili Cookbook. His work has been seen in just about every publication in the world, including The New York Times, The Washington Post and Time Magazine.