The magic of the Preakness Stakes stems in part from its spot on the calendar: right in the middle of the Triple Crown series. That means that most years the Kentucky Derby winner comes to Baltimore in hopes of taking the next step toward one of sport’s most difficult achievements.
This year, of course, being in the middle of the series also means being in the middle of raging controversy.
Medina Spirit, the upset winner of the Kentucky Derby, was found during postrace testing to have an overage of betamethasone, a corticosteroid often used as an anti-inflammatory drug. If a subsequent test confirms the overage — and if expected appeals are denied — then Medina Spirit would be disqualified from the Derby.
In response — and in the face of some calls to deny Medina Spirit a spot in the Preakness — the Maryland Jockey Club, which owns the race, and its parent company 1/ST Racing, decided to permit trainer Bob Baffert to enter Medina Spirit and another horse he conditions, Concert Tour, while subjecting them to extra prerace drug testing to ensure the safety of the horse and the integrity of the competition.
While all of this makes what might have been something of a feel-good story — inexpensive yearling aims for Triple Crown! — something else altogether, it’s still the case that this year’s middle jewel is a pretty wide-open affair and might just be a good betting race.
If there are no scratches, 10 runners will face starter Bruce Wagner on Saturday evening at about 6:47 p.m. Medina Spirit is the 9-to-5 morning line favorite, while Concert Tour is 5-2 on the morning line. The only other runner in single digits is Midnight Bourbon (5-1), who is trained by Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen.
There’s an old racing truism that pace makes the race, and that could definitely be the case in the 146th Preakness. In simplest terms, it means that if a habitual front-runner can steal off to the early lead and might be able to go all the way. Conversely, if the early portions of the race are hotly contested, that should play to the advantage of horses who like to run late.
And in this Preakness, there’s reason to think the early running could be quick and contested.
Medina Spirit led throughout the Kentucky Derby, and the evidence is that style suits him best. Midnight Bourbon had been one-two in the early running of all his longer races until getting the squeeze leaving the gate in the Run for the Roses. Concert Tour, the other Baffert runner, has plenty of early speed, too, and most expect him to be a forward factor.
The wild card is Japan-based France Go de Ina, who got left at the starting gate in the UAE Derby last time but had shown early lick in prior starts. His connections expect him to be involved early in the Preakness.
If some combination of those four runners heat up the pace, who might benefit? Long shot Keepmeinmind (15-1) finished seventh in the Kentucky Derby but was the only runner in the field to close significantly, rallying from 19th and last in the early going on a racing surface that favored front-runners.
The lightly raced Crowded Trade, trained by top young trainer Chad Brown, has been second and third in two stakes tries, including last time out in the Wood Memorial, one of the major Derby preps. His resume is a little bit light, but the Preakness has on occasion gone to lightly raced but improving sorts. Among those: Cloud Computing, the Brown trainee who entered the 2017 Preakness with a record identical to that of Crowded Trade and pulled off a 13-1 upset.
Finally, Unbridled Honor, from the powerful Todd Pletcher barn, will need a career-best effort to contend but would benefit from a sharp early pace.
There are several jockey changes to spice things up in the Preakness. Only three runners will have the same rider that they had in their last start: Keepmeinmind with David Cohen, Medina Spirit with John Velazquez and France Go de Ina with Joel Rosario.
Where does that leave us? Let’s call it:
Keepmeinmind (15-1): Robertino Diodoro trainee has a graded stakes win and has shown he can compete at the highest levels. This closer might get the trip he wants and could be sitting on a big step forward.
Concert Tour (5-2): The “other” Baffert trainee was part of the trainer’s “A” team until a disappointing third-place finish in the Arkansas Derby ended his three-race winning streak. With more time between races, he’ll be fresher than his stablemate and is drawn well outside.
Crowded Trade (10-1): The Chad Brown-trained runner won at first asking, then ran second in the Gotham and third in the Wood Memorial and will have Javier Castellano in the irons Saturday. The Brown-trained Cloud Computing won the ’17 Preakness with Castellano up after winning at first asking and then finishing second in the Gotham and third in the Wood Memorial. Spooky, eh?
Medina Spirit (9-5): Can’t ignore the Derby winner, who ran a career-best race, which he might need to repeat in here given the expected pressure he’ll face.
Over the years, the Preakness has occasionally produced long-shot winners and much more often-seen long shots finish either first or second with highly regarded runners. That’s made the exacta — a wager in which you pick the first two runners, in order — a good bet. Consider playing exactas using longer-priced runners paired with logical favorites as a way to find value.
Frank Vespe, the founder and publisher of TheRacingBiz.com, has owned, bought, sold, claimed, written about and talked about horses, in varying combinations, for 15 years.