by Guy Martin
The poets say that April is the cruelest month, but in American thoroughbred racing, it’s the brutal month of May that always takes its toll. This year, to say the very least, the larger pool of 2019’s three-year-olds have suffered a swift buzz-cut during May.
Omaha Beach’s race-week scratch from the Kentucky Derby and the Churchill Downs stewards’ call summarily removing Maximum Security from the Derby winner’s circle — and ultimately from the Preakness — was just the beginning.
We’re forced add the Derby’s rain to that already jangled history, and the performances of Bob Baffert’s erstwhile major contenders Game Winner and Roadster in the race — fourth and 15th, respectively. Neither of those big talents have made it to Pimlico and are, instead, being pointed toward late summer and early fall races. Bottom line: We’ve got a Preakness field with a whole new chunk of the Class of 2019 running in it.
For the record, Maximum Security seems slated for the Haskell. Omaha Beach is on the mend from his successful May 3 epiglottal surgery at home in Kentucky, recovering a bit slower than his owner or trainer might like, but is slated to fly back out to trainer Richard Mandella’s California training barn when the swelling subsides. It’s hoped he’ll be able to fly as soon as this weekend.
Without those strong athletes big-footing the finish line or the tote, then, the 144th Preakness will be run. Put another way, somebody’s going be good enough to win the Preakness and, no matter the outcome at Pimlico, somebody will be good enough to take the Belmont. This is the reason that the 2019 Preakness has such a relatively large field of thirteen.
With the scary, obvious talents out of the way, including Tacitus and the eventual Derby winner Country House, the forces of market meritocracy are hard at work. Owners and trainers who had not considered this race at the beginning of the season now think better of their chances for Preakness glory.
And why not? The exploitation of a sudden opening in the market is a tremendous sporting motive that makes for good horse races — and that can gift us with some glorious longshot performances.
Not that that makes the Preakness handicapping any easier. Of the three impressive colts entered by Baffert in the Kentucky Derby, only Improbable remains in the running for the mile-and-three-sixteenths duel at Pimlico. At 5-2, he’s the understandable favorite, followed closely on Pimlico’s morning line by the Derby veteran initially fouled by Maximum Security at the top of the stretch on May 4, War of Will, at 4-1. He’s followed in turn by Triple Crown newcomer Anothertwistafate, at 6-1.
It’s enormously difficult to say what War of Will would or could have done in the rugby scrum of the Derby finish had he not been fouled — he ran a lackluster seventh — but it’s important to the Preakness toolkit to take that race out of the equation and take a fresh look at the horse.
Pre-Derby, War of Will’s record shows three wins in Grade 2 races, and he did beat the eventual Derby-winner-by-default Country House in the Risen Star back in February, after which he ran ninth in the Louisiana Derby. But all we really now know about Country House is that he likes the mud, and that he was there in the end to be promoted to the blanket of roses. Despite the Derby win, Country House was a longshot for a reason and the thinking is that he would, on a fair track, be heavily challenged by the likes of a Tacitus, a Maximum Security, or a Game Winner.
The upshot is that War of Will is certainly a graded stakes race veteran, and he has that over most of the Preakness field, but he hasn’t shown us much consistency of form here at the outset of his third year, and he doesn’t seem to be wanting to play at the highest levels. He has the inside in what is, for the Preakness, a large field, so he’s going to have to gun it to get in position.
However the break works for him, he will need to open up his game, his stride and his tactical abilities to beat Improbable in this race. We’ll see what the track money says as the gates open, but the discerning player has the sense that his odds may be too low. Unless he does every little thing right, he’s at risk of being surpassed by one of the talented newcomers.
The aptly named colt Anothertwistafate, a son of Scat Daddy, is a different story, namely, one of improvement and appetite. Lightly raced, and never in a Grade 1, he’s had three firsts and two seconds in a six-race career to date, but seems to deserve his morning line placement as third-favorite by the verve and brio he demonstrates.
In other words, he tries hard.
Anothertwistafate is breaking from the outside twelfth post position, with just Win Win Win to his right and the rest of the field to his left. It means that he has a certain amount of luxury. He can avoid the scrum, find his spot off the pace, stalk the frontrunners, and do his work up the backstretch. It’s an ideal race scenario, if tactical speed is in the toolbox. His odds say that it is.
Alwaysmining, listed on the Pimlico morning line at 8-1, definitely knows how to win and, in the Tesio, exhibited great tactical speed, laying back before running away with that race by 11 ½ lengths. The Maryland-bred colt has won his last six races and simply seems unstoppable among the level of horses that he’s raced. That noted, the Preakness is a major step up for him, as it would be for any Maryland-bred who’s never faced the likes of Derby veterans, much less a talented one trained by Baffert, as Improbable is.
It can be that the story of the 2019 Preakness is written, or at least strongly influenced, by the competitors in the middle tier of the morning-line probabilities, meaning, Owendale, at 10-1, or Warrior’s Charge and Bourbon Wars, both at 12-1, and Win Win Win, at 15-1. Including a spray of these horses in your exotic-play arsenal will be a good chunk of the sport of the afternoon.
Owendale looks good — he beat Anothertwistafate and Sueno handily in the Keeneland’s Grade 3 Lexington in mid-April, his last outing, and has been training brightly. On the downside, he’s very lightly raced and ran eighth behind War of Will and Country House in the Risen Star. He has yet to prove his distance credentials. The longest race he has run, the Lexington, was his last, at a mile and a sixteenth. He’ll have a lot to do to get up there in the mix and stay with it.
To return to the morning line favorite, Improbable: It’s not just Baffert who is generating his odds as the morning line pick. As we have just seen in the Kentucky Derby, literally anything can happen in a horse race. But it does appear that, coming off a lackluster performance in the mud at Churchill Downs, Improbable is, on paper, the strongest contender.
Yet, the metric of his talent is not his wins, of which he has just three at the very outset of his two-year-old career. The metric is who he competed against before the Derby — namely, Omaha Beach. He was ”promoted” to fourth in the Derby behind Tacitus, but more important than that outing was his game performance in the Arkansas Derby, in which he ran second behind Omaha Beach.
That, the money is saying, is something to remember as the horses are called onto the track at Pimlico for the 144th running of this splendid race.
Guy Martin began his writing career in military school in the South, where he and some of his dormmates started a mimeographed broadside called the “Trusty Tribunal.” During the same time period, he (accidentally) learned German, then studied in Berlin, which drove him to cover the fall of the Berlin Wall.
He still spends much of his time in Berlin and, in fact, is there now, working on a book for Alfred A. Knopf Publishers about the Cold War in East Berlin.
Guy has reported from London, Warsaw, Prague, Istanbul, Moscow, Hong Kong, Lima, Manila, Beirut, Tel Aviv, St. Moritz, Granada, Mindanao and from his native South for Esquire, Town and Country, Garden and Gun, Conde Nast Traveler, Men’s Journal, Departures, The New Yorker, and a host of other magazines in the United States and abroad.