Road to 2019 Preakness: Three Heating Up, Three Cooling Down

Racing
War of Will receives some TLC as he settles in at Pimlico on May 15 in advance of a planned start in the 144th Preakness Stakes. (Eclipse Sportswire)

This feature provides a capsule look at three horses who are heating up on the Triple Crown trail and three horses not looking quite as strong as they were a week ago.

In last week’s edition, the focus was the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve and what the results mean moving forward. This week, we tackle how the second leg of the Triple Crown – the Preakness Stakes May 18 at Pimlico Race Course – is shaping up.


HEATING UP

Jim McCue/Maryland Jockey Club

1. Alwaysmining

He’s my pick to win the Preakness despite a MAJOR step up in class compared with the competition he’s been beating up at Laurel Park. Once Omaha Beach scratched –  I thought he was head and shoulders the best 3-year-old of this crop – I was already thinking Alwaysmining had a big shot in the second jewel of the Triple Crown. With the first four horses across the finish line for the Kentucky Derby all opting to bypass Saturday’s race, Alwaysmining looks even more formidable. Of course, the negative is rather than getting 8-1 to 12-1, we’re probably looking at 9-2 or less at best. Alwaysmining, who has won six straight by a combined margin of 36 ½ lengths, has a lot going for him: he’s right there with the top contenders when it comes to speed figures, he has tactical speed having won from on the pace and just off the pace, and he’s shown the ability to finish fast in his races. I also like to see some serious back class in the pedigree and his first two dams won at 1 1/8 miles. No Maryland-bred has won the Preakness since Deputed Testamony in 1983. Alwaysmining can change that on May 18 at Pimlico. Read more analysis in my Making the Grade profile.


Eclipse Sportswire

2. War of Will

After it looked like his hind end gave out early in the Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby and then he just never really accelerated late, I was concerned about War of Will entering the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve. He ran well enough in defeat, finishing eighth by 4 ½ lengths before being moved up to seventh via disqualification of Maximum Security, to be optimistic about in the Preakness. He was really moving when the bumping occurred between him and Maximum Security and he got right back to near his top speed figure (Equibase Speed Figure of 105 was two ticks off his best as was his 94 BRISnet rating). That was more than a respectable performance on a soupy track from the inside post in a 19-horse field. I think he’s another that really benefits from not seeing the top runners from the Derby and fewer horses to create traffic. I also like that he seems to have a killer instinct late in races when he’s in contention. Maximum Security fans won’t be betting him on Preakness day, nor will many people who see an eight and a nine as the final finishing position in his last two races. I think there is a real chance to get great value on one of the most talented runners in the field.


Eclipse Sportswire

3. Owendale

Of the closers entered in the Preakness – or potential closers in this case, because Owendale has enough tactical speed to stalk if necessary – I like Owendale the best. The Preakness has been dominated in recent years by horses who set or press/stalk the pace, but most of the time those were simply the best horses. Justify, American Pharoah, California Chrome, Rachel Alexandra, and Big Brown didn’t win because of their running styles, they won because they were, by far, the best horse in the race.

So while only three of the last 17 winners were more than 3 ¼ lengths back after the first quarter-mile, closers do have a shot in the Preakness with six of the last 20 winners. What those closing Preakness winners seem to share is the ability to make up big chunks of real estate on the final turn with an eye-catching rally. I’m thinking specifically of Exaggerator in 2016 and Afleet Alex in 2005. Owendale’s winning move on the final turn of the Stonestreet Lexington Stakes reminds me of that type of powerful closing bid. Facing a short stretch in the 1 1/16-mile Lexington, Owendale swept right past his rivals, including Preakness opponent Anothertwistafate, as he closed from eighth after three-quarters of a mile to first by two lengths in early stretch. He did so despite a moderate early pace and earned a career-best 106 Equibase Speed Figure for the win. Owendale also earned promising figures from Daily Racing Form (98 Beyer Speed Figure) and BRISnet (99). I also like Bourbon War a bit as a deep-closing threat, but I prefer Owendale and I think the price will be right as well in a race with no clear standout.


Honorable Mentions: As mentioned previously, with so many top 3-year-olds missing the Preakness, including Omaha Beach and the first four horses to cross the finish line in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve, this race is a golden opportunity for a racehorse to add a classic victory to its résumé. Perhaps no 3-year-old enters a better scenario this weekend than Improbable. He did not make the above list because he finished fifth and was elevated to fourth via disqualification as the favorite in the Kentucky Derby. Improbable ran OK in the Derby but certainly did not dazzle, and he also very likely will be the favorite in the Preakness. We’re not talking about a buzz horse or a rapidly improving runner to watch as much as a proven runner entering an ideal setup. He adds Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, so Improbable has no excuse in the Preakness. … I briefly mentioned Bourbon War in the capsule on Owendale, and I like his chances to come running in the stretch and perhaps finish in the top three. At his best – 110 Equibase Speed Figure, 96 BRISnet rating – he’s fast enough to compete and he has a terrific pedigree. The runner-up finish to Code of Honor in the Xpressbet Fountain of Youth Stakes and fourth to Maximum Security in the Xpressbet Florida Derby look much better than they did a few weeks ago. I think he’s a player in the Preakness.


COOLING DOWN

1,2,3. The Top Kentucky Derby Finishers

Sure, Tacitus is reportedly targeting the Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets, but with the 3-year-old division wide open, I have to admit I just don’t understand why so many elite members of this crop aren’t taking a shot at a classic win Saturday or in the Belmont Stakes. Trainer Jason Servis and the connections of Maximum Security clearly are still stung by the disqualification in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve. Anyone in that situation would be. But given the stated goal of winning the Eclipse Award, the Preakness would seem to be easy pickings for Maximum Security. Horses with elite tactical speed who also are the most talented horse in the field are almost unbeatable in the Preakness. Servis said his colt performs better when given plenty of rest between starts. He knows the horse 100-percent better than me, but it does seem like a missed opportunity to add a classic win to what they hope is an Eclipse Award-winning résumé. … Country House came out of the Kentucky Derby with a minor illness that forced him to miss the Preakness. I can’t and would never argue with Bill Mott’s decision to skip the race. A Hall of Fame trainer like Mott will always put his horse first and rightfully so. What confuses me was that it seems like Country House, too, is destined to be put on the shelf until summer. For a horse that Mott called a throwback who thrives on racing, I was surprised that it sounds like he’s not under serious consideration for the Belmont Stakes. Of course, that could change, and if he’s back to top condition it would be very nice to see the Derby winner have a chance to solidify his credentials in the “Test of the Champion.” … I was stunned when Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey said he was planning to put Code of Honor away until the Jim Dandy Stakes in July. For a trainer who has long been based in New York to bypass the Belmont Stakes with the Kentucky Derby runner-up (officially) was kind of shocking. As I’ve said previously, we’re talking about Hall of Fame trainer who knows his horse and will do right by him. I would never advocate for pushing a racehorse to return before physically ready. But it sure feels like the significance of a classic victory, especially in a non-Triple Crown year, has really plummeted over the last few years. That’s unfortunate, to say the least.

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