Preakness Stakes a Rematch of the Derby

By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") @J_Keelerman

In what has become a bit of a rarity in recent years, the top three finishers from the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) will face off again in the May 16th Preakness Stakes (gr. I) at Pimlico, and—on paper—they look poised to sweep the trifecta once again in the second jewel of the Triple Crown.

Although such a feat is rather uncommon, it has happened more than a few times in the history of the two races. The most recent instance was in 2007, when the talented trio of Street Sense, Hard Spun, and Curlin dominated their rivals in both the Derby and the Preakness, albeit while changing the order of finish (Street Sense won the Derby over Hard Spun and Curlin; Curlin turned the tables on them both in the Preakness.)

So the key to handicapping this year’s Preakness appears to be comprised of two questions: Will Kentucky Derby 1-2-3 finishers American Pharoah, Firing Line, and Dortmund sweep the trifecta again in the Preakness? And if so, will they repeat their order of finish from the Derby, or will the finishing positions be different?

We’ll start by analyzing the chances of American Pharoah. The son of Pioneerof the Nile has won five consecutive graded stakes races, culminating with a hard-fought victory in the Derby. In that race, he ran wide every step of the way, but still managed to wear down Firing Line and triumph by a length. Given that all of his previous victories had been achieved in very easy fashion, it’s fair to question how the hard effort in the Derby will affect him—will it hone him into a state of peak fitness or the Preakness, or will it tire him out and leave him vulnerable to regression?

Personally, my gut feeling is that American Pharoah’s hard effort in the Derby is exactly what he needed, and will bring him to his peak for a career-best effort in the Preakness. Backing up this belief are recent reports on American Pharoah’s training since the Derby—apparently, he is still thriving and appears ready to roll in the Preakness.

The main concern regarding his chances is the fact that he drew the rail, which—in my opinion—will either be a huge plus or a huge negative. In his career thus far, American Pharoah has never had to race behind horses and deal with dirt getting kicked in his face, so if he gets away to a slow start in the Preakness, it’s very possible that he’ll find himself in an unfamiliar, uncomfortable position behind horses, which could seriously hamper his chances. Additionally, I won’t soon forget the track conditions at Pimlico for the 2013 Preakness, when a drying-out track led to a strong bias toward horses racing on the outside. With rain in the forecast for Preakness day, I will be keeping an eye out for the possibility of a bad rail that could compromise American Pharoah’s chances.

But that said, the advantages of drawing the rail may outweigh the disadvantages. Three of American Pharoah’s five victories have come in gate-to-wire fashion, so assuming he breaks well in the Preakness, he shouldn’t have any trouble seizing command of the early lead and daring his rivals to catch him. Furthermore, in the Derby, American Pharoah lost a lot of ground in comparison to Firing Line and Dortmund—according to Trakus, American Pharoah ran 29 feet farther than Firing Line and 69 feet farther than Dortmund. This time around, American Pharoah should be the one saving ground, an easy-to-overlook but very significant factor in his favor. Therefore, keeping all of this in mind, I will take American Pharoah as my selection to win the Preakness. He may be the favorite, and he does have questions to answer, but in my opinion, he is sitting on a very big effort and will win the Preakness in decisive fashion.

For the runner-up spot, I think the race will come down to a battle between Firing Line and Dortmund, and I will side with the latter to turn the tables on his Derby conqueror. In the Derby, Dortmund found himself on the lead setting a reasonable pace, but couldn’t quite hang on in the homestretch. One can argue that ten furlongs might have been too far for him, but it’s also possible that the tiring track at Churchill may have been the bigger issue. The slight cutback in distance and hopefully faster track at Pimlico should both play in Dortmund’s favor, and assuming American Pharoah bids for the lead from the rail, Dortmund should be able to work out a great trip stalking the pace or settling a couple lengths off the lead, which I believe may be his best running style. He may not possess the acceleration of American Pharoah or Firing Line, but his grinding style could come into play if the pace is fast, and help put him right in contention in the final quarter-mile. I really like his chances, and believe he is the most likely candidate to round out the exacta.

I’ll be the first to admit that Firing Line surprised me with his stellar performance in the Derby, and if he can repeat it, he should be right in the mix to win the Preakness. However, I do wonder if he can produce another top effort off a two-week rest—he is accustomed to much longer gaps between races—and drawing post eight might not be the most ideal. Furthermore, looking at the potential pace scenario, I don’t believe Mr. Z or Divining Rod will be sent to the lead, and I don’t think Bodhisattva has enough early speed to keep up with the pace in the Preakness. If this is true, then American Pharoah and Dortmund should be in a great position to dictate the pace from posts one and two, leaving Firing Line in the awkward position of trying to chase the pace from the far outside. Don’t get me wrong, I have a great deal of respect for Firing Line’s chances, but of the top-three Derby finishers, I believe he is the most likely to regress in the Preakness.

If any horse is going to break the American Pharoah/Firing Line/Dortmund barrier, I believe that horse will be Danzig Moon, who finished fifth in the Derby. He didn’t receive the best of trips in the Run for the Roses, getting jostled around in traffic during the first quarter-mile before finding himself just a few lengths off the early lead, which may have been too close to the pace. Even still, he put in a solid challenge on the far turn while in pursuit of the leaders and actually opened up a couple of lengths on the rest of the field before flattening out a bit in the final quarter-mile. All reports indicate that he has trained strongly since the Derby, and with a better trip than he endured in the Derby, I definitely think he could be in the mix to finish in the trifecta and prevent another sweep from the Derby 1-2-3 finishers.

Now it’s your turn! Who do you like in the Preakness Stakes?

Preakness Stakes (gr. I)

# Horse Jockey Trainer Last race
1 American Pharoah Victor Espinoza Bob Baffert 1st Kentucky Derby (gr. I) (VIDEO)
2 Dortmund Martin Garcia Bob Baffert 3rd Kentucky Derby (gr. I) (VIDEO)
3 Mr. Z Corey Nakatani D. Wayne Lukas 13th Kentucky Derby (gr. I) (VIDEO)
4 Danzig Moon Julien Leparoux Mark Casse 5th Kentucky Derby (gr. I) (VIDEO)
5 Tale of Verve Joel Rosario Dallas Stewart 1st Maiden Special Weight (VIDEO)
6 Bodhisattva Trevor McCarthy Jose Corrales 1st Federico Tesio Stakes (VIDEO)
7 Divining Rod Javier Castellano Arnaud Delacour 1st Lexington Stakes (gr. III) (VIDEO)
8 Firing Line Gary Stevens Simon Callaghan 2nd Kentucky Derby (gr. I) (VIDEO)

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