By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
From a sporting perspective, Saturday's $1.5 million Preakness Stakes (gr. I) at
Pimlico isn't particularly exciting. The first four horses to cross the finish
line in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) are all skipping the Preakness, so for the
first time since 1996, there won't be a Triple Crown quest on the line at
But from a handicapping perspective, the Preakness is
shaping up to be a fantastic betting race with a large field and plenty of
options for bettors to consider. Let's go through the field in horse-by-horse
fashion and come up with some selections....
War of Will: All things considered, this son of War Front
ran a huge race in the Kentucky Derby. Breaking from the rail, he was reluctant
to settle after being beaten to the lead, and when he tried to shift out and
rally on the far turn, he ran up on the heels of Maximum Security when the
latter ducked out sharply. Despite these obstacles, War of Will regrouped and
was just one length off the lead at the eighth pole before weakening late to cross
the wire in eighth place.
Unfortunately, War of Will has drawn the rail again in
the Preakness, which leaves him with few options for working out a clean trip.
After the Derby debacle, I expect jockey Tyler Gaffalione to aggressively send
War of Will to the front, but then War of Will figures to be hounded by pressers
and stalkers from start to finish, not exactly an ideal trip for a colt whose
best efforts have come when employing outside stalking tactics. You can also
argue War of Will's Derby performance was enhanced by racing over a sloppy, sealed
track, which he clearly relishes.
I have a lot of respect for War of Will's talent, and his
Derby performance was a big step forward off his troubled ninth-place finish in
the Louisiana Derby (gr. II). But drawing the rail again is a tough blow, so I'll
limit his inclusion on my tickets to the trifecta and superfecta.
Bourbon War: As a one-run deep closer, Bourbon War is
reliant on a fast pace (or at least an honest pace) to set up his late rally.
Two starts back, he got a perfect setup in the Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr.
II) and produced a big run to finish second, beaten less than a length by the
eventual Kentucky Derby runner-up Code of Honor.
But in the Florida Derby (gr. I), Bourbon War was
compromised by a slow pace and a remarkably fast finish, which made it
impossible for him to rally and challenge the front-runners. RacingFlow.com
assigned the race a Closer Favorability Ratio of 2 on their 1-to-100 scale,
indicating a race that fell within the top 2% of speed-favoring events.
To his credit, Bourbon War did churn on against this
impossible scenario to finish fourth behind Maximum Security (who crossed the
wire first in the Kentucky Derby), Bodexpress, and Code of Honor. For the
Preakness, Bourbon War will add blinkers in an effort to stay more involved
early on, but just an honest pace should be enough to get him back in the mix. Considering
his deceptively good Florida Derby effort and the possibility for a better
setup on Saturday, I view Bourbon War as a top contender to hit the board in
Warrior's Charge: Talk about a wildcard! After finishing
third in his first three starts for trainer Brad Cox, Warrior's Charge stepped
up his game significantly in a 1 1/16-mile maiden special weight at Oaklawn two
months ago. Previously a mid-pack closer, Warrior's Charge set the pace that
day and powered clear in the homestretch to win by six lengths over Rotation,
who broke his own maiden at Churchill Downs on Kentucky Derby.
Then Warrior's Charge tackled an allowance optional
claiming race (again going 1 1/16 miles at Oaklawn) and won with complete
authority, widening under his own power around the far turn before cruising to an
unchallenged 6 ½-length triumph. For that effort, he earned a 97 Beyer speed
figure, which would put him thoroughly in contention for victory in the Preakness.
Can Warrior's Charge repeat that performance while
stepping up in class and distance? He's been winning so easily that there's no way
to gauge how good he might be. He'll certainly face pace pressure in the
Preakness, but if he can rate behind the leaders—and judging from his first
three starts, there's no reason to think he can't—he could be a dangerous
contender at a nice price. He'll pick up the services of the two-time
Preakness-winning jockey Javier Castellano, so at 12-1, I'm tempted to use
Warrior's Charge on all my tickets, even multi-race wagers.
Improbable: In terms of Beyer speed figures, Improbable is the
fastest horse in the Preakness field, and he's also the highest-finishing
Kentucky Derby starter continuing on to Pimlico, having crossed the wire in fifth
place at Churchill Downs.
But throughout the winter and spring, I've been concerned
by Improbable's tendency to race sluggishly during the opening furlongs of his
races. It didn't affect him much as a juvenile, when he was clearly superior to
the rivals he was facing, but against tougher company this year it's become a
bigger issue. I'd argue it cost him victory in the first division of the Rebel
Stakes (gr. II), and it certainly didn't do him any favors in the Kentucky
Derby. In the Derby, he broke just fine, but couldn't accelerate fast enough to
secure good position and wound up boxed in behind and between horses for the
majority of the race.
As a result, drawing post four in the Preakness could be
problematic for Improbable. With fast horses scattered both to his inside and
outside, he risks getting buried in traffic again. The rider switch to Mike
Smith could make a difference, since Smith tends to be aggressive in securing
good early position, but considering how Improbable has been the cause of his
own problems this year, I'm not sure I want to rely on him winning at a short
price. For the exotics, he's a must-use contender, but for win purposes I think
Owendale: Visually speaking, Owendale looked fantastic in the
Lexington Stakes (gr. III) at Keeneland last month, unleashing a sweeping rally
from off the pace to win by 1 ¾ lengths with a career-best 98 Beyer speed
figure. But take note, the rail at Keeneland was dead on the day of the
Lexington, so outside closers like Owendale enjoyed a distinct advantage throughout
the afternoon. That doesn't mean Owendale isn't a talented colt, and his
Lexington performance was a nice improvement off his previous form, but considering
the advantage he enjoyed I'm reluctant to play him in the Preakness, except perhaps
in the trifecta or superfecta.
Market King: He ran well enough when finishing third
behind Omaha Beach and Game Winner in the second division of the Rebel Stakes
(gr. II) at Oaklawn this winter, but he subsequently faded to eleventh place in
the Blue Grass Stakes (gr. II) at Keeneland. Market King does have speed and
should be a pace presence, but this is a tough spot and he might find the
waters too deep against a field of this caliber.
Alwaysmining: What do we do with this local Maryland-bred
sensation? Alwaysmining has won his last six starts by an average margin of six
lengths, and he's been particularly dominant in two-turn races, most recently
winning the 1 1/8-mile Federico Tesio Stakes at Laurel Park by 11 ½ lengths.
But it's fair to question the caliber of competition
Alwaysmining has defeated. He did beat fellow Preakness contender Win Win Win
by 1 ½ lengths in the seven-furlong Heft Stakes last December, but Win Win Win endured
a trouble trip that day and has improved a lot since then. This year,
Alwaysmining's best rivals have been Gray Magician (runner-up in the UAE Derby
but last in the Kentucky Derby), Joevia (who crossed the wire seventh in the
Wood Memorial), and Trifor Gold (who was defeated in three allowance races
prior to finishing second in the Federico Tesio).
Granted, Alwaysmining has been much the best in his
recent starts, and the 96 Beyer he posted while winning the Private Terms
Stakes would put him in the mix at Pimlico. But for a horse winning easily, he's
been ridden harder down the lane than you might expect, and he's also benefited
from setting or tracking slow fractions in small fields. As a racing fan, I'm
fond of Alwaysmining and would be happy to see him score a victory for the
locals. But he'll be facing much tougher company on Saturday and figures to be
part of a faster early pace, so from a handicapping perspective, I plan to
Signalman: You have to admire Signalman's unwavering willingness
to run inside and between horses. Ask him to rally through a practically non-existent
opening, and he'll battle his way through. But this year, the son of General
Quarters seems to have hit a form ceiling, with a mild third-place finish in
the Blue Grass Stakes (gr. II) suggesting he might not be fast enough to hold his
own in a race like the Preakness.
Still, he could show improvement while making his third
start of the season, and if a fast pace unfolds, you know Signalman will do his
best to slice through the pack and pass tiring runners. He'll be a big price in
the wagering, so I wouldn't be opposed to including him on deep trifecta or
Bodexpress: He benefited from the race shape when chasing Maximum
Security to a second-place finish in the Florida Derby (gr. I), and when faced
with more challenging circumstances in the Kentucky Derby, he was weakening
when squeezed out of contention on the far turn and ultimately crossed the wire
fourteenth. This son of Bodemeister is still a maiden after six starts, and his
typical pace-pressing tactics could lead to a wide trip in this speed-laden Preakness
field. For these reasons, I'll play against him.
Everfast: This stoutly-bred son of Take Charge Indy has shown
flashes of promise, most notably when finishing second in the Holy Bull Stakes
(gr. II) at 128-1, but with a career-best Beyer of 83 and a nine-race losing
streak in tow, he'll be among the longshots in the Preakness and would need to
step up his game to hit the board.
Laughing Fox: Trained by Steve Asmussen, who sent out longshot
Tenfold to finish a close third in the 2018 Preakness, Laughing Fox was no
match for the likes of Omaha Beach, Game Winner, and Improbable in the Rebel
Stakes (gr. II) and Arkansas Derby (gr. I), but found a drop in class for the 1
1/8-mile Oaklawn Invitational Stakes to be a recipe for success.
On paper, it appears Laughing Fox produced quite a late
rally to win the Oaklawn Invitational, gaining three lengths in the final furlong
to prevail by a neck. But viewing the replay, it appears Laughing Fox's running
line is incorrect; he was actually just a length off the pace with a furlong to
go and was all-out to catch the runner-up while posting a Beyer of just 91. Since
there are other late runners that I like better (Bourbon War, Owendale, maybe
even Signalman), I'll side against Laughing Fox in the Preakness.
#12 Anothertwistafate: From a visual
perspective, I'm not sure any three-year-old has made a greater impression on
me this year than Anothertwistafate. This talented son of Scat Daddy has a
professional, powerful way of running that can't be discovered by a glance at
his past performances. You have to see him in action to understand the
potential he has.
Anothertwistafate first came to my attention when he
dominated a one-mile allowance optional claiming race at Golden Gate Fields on
January 4th, winning by five lengths in gate-to-wire fashion. This
performance made him the favorite for the February 16th El Camino
Real Derby going 1 1/8 miles, and once again he dominated on the front end,
powering clear in the homestretch to defeat Bob Baffert's next-out stakes
winner Kingly by seven lengths.
What struck me most about Anothertwistafate's performance
wasn't his eye-catching margin of victory or his solid 94 Beyer speed figure.
It was the way he ran down the homestretch—straight as an arrow, focused and
powerful, sprinting the final furlong in :12.08 seconds. He didn't look wasn't
your typical El Camino Real Derby winner—he looked like something greater,
Unfortunately, rating tactics backfired in the Sunland
Derby (gr. III), though it wasn't due to any shortcomings on Anothertwistafate's
part. The colt was perfectly content to settle behind the leaders, but unfortunately,
he got boxed in behind horses and had to wait in traffic at a key point on the
far turn, losing ground while the eventual winner Cutting Humor swept by unimpeded
on the far outside. It was a discouraging bit of bad luck, but
Anothertwistafate didn't give up, shifting outside in the homestretch and
charging through a final furlong in about :12 flat to fall just a neck short of
catching Cutting Humor. Once again, Anothertwistafate ran straight and true down
the homestretch—he just ran out of ground.
Three weeks later, Anothertwistafate tackled the
Lexington Stakes (gr. III) at Keeneland in a last-ditch effort to qualify for
the Kentucky Derby, but if anything, he received a worse trip than in the
Sunland Derby. On a day when the inside at Keeneland was noticeably dead,
Anothertwistafate spent the entire race boxed in behind and between horses, running
closer to the rail than most of his rivals while unable to settle into his own
rhythm and put his stride to good use.
Once again, Anothertwistafate had to wait in traffic while
the eventual winner (this time Owendale) swept to the front with a clean
outside run on the far turn. When a seam opened up turning for home,
Anothertwistafate actually shifted closer to the dead rail, where he had little
chance to match the momentum of Owendale, who sprinted the final sixteenth of a
mile in :06.09 seconds while remaining outside. But to Anothertwistafate's
credit, he did close the gap a little bit despite his unfortunate trip and
posted a career-best 95 Beyer.
Perhaps Anothertwistafate's luck will turn around on
Saturday. He already received a bit of good fortune when he drew post twelve,
which should ensure that he finally receives a clean outside trip and can run
his own race without getting boxed in behind horses.
Call it an educated hunch (or just a crazy hunch if you
prefer), but I'm siding with Anothertwistafate to win the Preakness Stakes.
Simply put, he looks like a special horse
and I don't think we've seen the best he has to offer yet. I'm excited to see how
he runs on Saturday.
Win Win Win: He's shown flashes of brilliance while
sprinting, but since stretching out around two turns his late rallies have lacked
the same sparkle. He was aided by slow finishing fractions when rallying to
finish second in the Blue Grass Stakes (gr. II), and in the Kentucky Derby, he
didn't produce much of a run and split the field to cross the wire tenth. Part
of Win Win Win's problem is his tendency to break slowly, and while the
addition of blinkers might help him get into the race sooner, the winner's
circle could prove elusive until he cuts back in distance. I think he could be
a beast in one-turn races up to a mile in distance.
Live Longshot: Warrior's Charge
Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Preakness Stakes?
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J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, blogger, videographer, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. He is the founder of the horse racing website www.theturfboard.com.