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Even in a normal year, the Kentucky Derby winner and his trainer soak up most of our attention heading into the Preakness Stakes.
In 2021, when that horse is Medina Spirit and that trainer is Bob Baffert, trying to move on from a failed drug test that could erase their Derby win, there’s hardly any oxygen left for the other nine contenders in the Preakness.
Medina Spirit is the morning-line favorite for Saturday’s race against a field weakened by the defections of his top Derby pursuers, but there are other horses with interesting stories whose trainers think they can pull the upset.
“It’s definitely a wide-open race,” said trainer Robertino Diodoro, who will be hoping his entry, Keepmeinmind, can close on Medina Spirit.
The second choice in the morning line is Medina Spirit’s own stablemate, Concert Tour. They did not face off in the Derby, because Baffert chose to pull Concert Tour from the field after an underwhelming third-place finish in the Arkansas Derby. The Hall of Fame trainer and his top assistant, Jimmy Barnes, have liked everything they’ve seen from the colt since, and there are those who regard Concert Tour as the more likely winner from Baffert’s barn.
“There’s a number of horses here numbers-wise that could get up here and win,” said six-time Preakness winner D. Wayne Lukas, who will saddle long shot Ram for the race. “I think Bob’s going to win it; he’s got the double chance and both horses look very good right now. But I actually like the other one more than the Derby winner. I think the Derby was a hard race on a lot of horses.”
The question of Medina Spirit vs. Concert Tour will be especially pertinent because both are expected to vie for the early lead, with two of the best big-race riders in recent history — John Velazquez aboard the Derby winner and Mike Smith aboard his challenger — waging their own tactical battle.
Barnes, filling in for the absent Baffert, didn’t care to compare the stablemates, but he said Concert Tour looked “awesome on the track” galloping 1 1/2 miles at Pimlico Race Course on Thursday morning.
Reflecting on that disappointing performance in the Arkansas Derby, Barnes said “we should have just went,” meaning Concert Tour should have been allowed to use his natural speed to control the race from the front. Instead, jockey Joel Rosario kept him in a stalking spot until the stretch, and Concert Tour could not hold off a late move by Super Stock.
Don’t expect Smith to be so conservative Saturday breaking from the outside No. 10 post.
“I just draw a line through that last race,” Barnes said. “I know which direction [Concert Tour is] heading, and it’s the one we’d want to see. He’ll show up on Saturday.”
There could be another horse engaged in the battle upfront in Midnight Bourbon, who finished sixth in the Derby and was listed as third choice in the morning line for the Preakness. He got off to a rough start at Churchill Downs, but trainer Steve Asmussen, not always an effusive presence on the backstretch, has spoken glowingly of his chances for a better result in Baltimore.
“Driving back to the barn from the grandstand, I was thinking how crazy we are as horsemen,” Asmussen said Monday after putting Midnight Bourbon through a light final workout at Churchill Downs. “It’s only less than two weeks from the disappointment of the Derby, and here I am, thinking I’m going to win a classic again, and I get all giddy.”
Asmussen knows plenty about handicapping the Preakness; he won it with Curlin in 2007 and again with the great filly Rachel Alexandra in 2009. He loves watching Midnight Bourbon, an expressive bay colt, move across the dirt.
“He went over the track beautifully this morning,” he said after watching his Preakness contender gallop at Pimlico for the first time Wednesday. “So no excuses until necessary.”
Midnight Bourbon, who had never finished worse than third in seven pre-Derby starts, will have a new rider for the Preakness, with Irad Ortiz Jr. stepping in for Smith. Not a bad trade given that Ortiz has won the past three Eclipse Awards as North America’s top jockey.
With Concert Tour and Midnight Bourdon revving to challenge Medina Spirit from the break, NBC analyst Randy Moss does not see how he can have the ideal scenario he did in the Derby, where Velazquez let him run free to the front as rough traffic slowed the other fast starters.
“Medina Spirit had a tactical advantage in the Kentucky Derby, due in part and probably even primarily to what happened at the start to Rock Your World and Midnight Bourbon, the two horses expected to be his pace competition,” Moss said. “I’m not suggesting Medina Spirit is the type of horse that needs to have the lead to win, because he has run very good races when he didn’t have the lead. But it is an advantage in dirt racing in America to have an uncontested early lead.”
He expects Medina Spirit and Midnight Bourbon to end up stalking Concert Tour around the track, but how fast will they go?
The answer will be critically important to Diodoro, who will saddle late charger Keepmeinmind coming off a seventh-place finish in the Derby. Though Diodoro was not elated with the final result at Churchill Downs, he loved the way Keepmeinmind finished and his energy coming out of the race.
“His running style, he only runs the last 3/8 of a mile, and if there is such a thing as a good style to bounce back quick in two weeks, it’s definitely his,” said Diodoro, who’s relishing his first Triple Crown series after 26 years in the game. “I think this horse, he’s had excuses and things we couldn’t control at the beginning of his 3-year-old season, but things are just starting to line up for him. People might think I’m nuts, but I’m very confident and excited for Saturday.”
He grinned when asked whether the predicted early battle between the favorites will set up perfectly for Keepmeinmind as jockey David Cohen waits to make his move.
“Unfortunately, the race is run on dirt and not paper,” Diodoro said in the accent of his Calgary, Alberta, youth.
“He’s going to need a really fast early pace in order to have a chance to win,” Moss said of Diodoro’s 15-1 shot.
Rombauer, a 12-1 shot in the morning line, will also look to close hard. His trainer, Michael McCarthy, prepared horses for Triple Crown races as an assistant to Todd Pletcher, but this is his first shot at one since he went on his own. He foresees a wide-open race if the early battle for the lead is as intense as many expect.
“It’s a Triple Crown race; they’re always a little faster than your average race,” McCarthy said. “Anything can happen. When you do what we do, these are the kinds of races you want to participate in.”
146TH PREAKNESS STAKES
May 15, 6:47 p.m. approximate post time
TV: Chs. 11, 4 (5 p.m.)
Triple Crown series: Belmont, June 5