Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas gazed down the shedrow of the stakes barn at Pimlico Race Course as he pondered the 13 starters for the $1.5 million Preakness Stakes on Saturday. Not a star was in sight.
Other sports yearn for parity. Fans in cities with downtrodden NBA teams eagerly awaited the outcome of the NBA Draft Lottery on Tuesday night, hoping an imposing young man named Zion Williamson could immediately alter their fortunes.
The NFL uses the combination of a draft and a salary cap to do everything possible to push for parity and offset the genius of New England Patriots mastermind Bill Belichick. The NHL has achieved great competitive balance and its playoffs enjoy packed arenas.
Racing, though, thirsts for four-legged 3-year-old stars. It has gotten them two of the last four years with American Pharoah ending the record 37-year drought between Triple Crown winners in 2015 and Justify doing the unthinkable by achieving the historic sweep last spring after his Feb. 18 debut.
American Pharoah and Justify were magnificent to behold. Their mere presence created an unmistakable buzz before the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes. But there is a beauty to parity, with almost any result possible at any time, and racing fans may need to accept that as their reality in 2019.
“The 3-year-old picture right now is searching for somebody to take the mantle, to step up,” said Lukas. “We haven’t found that yet.”
Omaha Beach, winner of a division of the Rebel Stakes and the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park, offered star potential only to be tripped up by an entrapped epiglottis that kept him from reaching the Churchill Downs starting gate as the Kentucky Derby favorite.
Maximum Security, the first winner of the Derby to be disqualified for interference in the race’s 145-year history, was clearly the best horse as he was in his Florida Derby prep. He still has much to prove and is conspicuous in his absence from the Preakness.
Fountain of Youth winner Code of Honor, moved up to second in the opening leg of the Triple Crown, is another colt that could still emerge as a star. It will not happen on Saturday. He, too, is conspicuous in his absence.
Like it or not, that leaves a Preakness field long on parity, a very good thing for serious horseplayers. Even if favored Improbable delivers after being placed fourth through disqualification in the Derby, he will surely offer a solid return and top rewarding exotic wagers.
“There are 13 in there. You can make a case for most of them,” Lukas said.
Trainers sense opportunity. That led Brad Cox to persuade Ten Strike Racing and Madaket Stables to risk $150,000 to supplement Warrior’s Charge to the 1 3/16-mile Preakness. The son of Munnings did not break his maiden until his fourth start, when he romped by six lengths on March 16 at Oaklawn Park. He followed that with a second consecutive wire-to-wire rout, taking a 1 1/16-mile optional claiming allowance race by 6 ½ lengths at Oaklawn on April 12.
In this year, at least, Cox found 150,000 reasons to give him a shot in a Preakness that features only four Derby starters: Improbable, War of Will (seventh), Win Win Win (ninth) and Bodexpress (13th).
Trainer Dale Romans is taking a “Why not?” shot with Calumet Farm’s Everfast, second in the Holy Bull but then eighth in the Fountain of Youth, ninth in the Florida Derby and fifth in the Pat Day Mile.
“We’ll try and wiggle our way into a piece of it. He’s done it before,” Romans said. “We’ll lead him over and see what happens.”
Lukas is taking the same “Why not?” approach with Market King, third to Omaha Beach in the Rebel but a thoroughly beaten 11th in the Blue Grass.
It is that kind of year so far, a year in which racing fans may have no choice but to come to appreciate parity.