Bob Baffert has won the Preakness Stakes a record-tying seven times, including all five times he’s arrived with the Kentucky Derby winner.
All of which means he’s two for 12 in years he didn’t have the Derby winner. This is one of those years.
Still, the two-time Triple Crown-winning trainer finds himself with the 5-2 favorite, Improbable, even though the colt hasn’t won a race this year.
“Improbable is a really good horse, but he’s gotten beat his last three outings,” Baffert said. “I think the reason I won those other races is I came in here with the best horse. I think [Improbable] is one of the best horses. I think what we have here is a lot of parity and that’s why it’s a bigger field” of 13 horses. “It’s wide open.”
It’s difficult to tell how sold Baffert is on Improbable’s chances. In fact, he didn’t even get to town until late Thursday afternoon, leaving the horse in the hands of Jimmy Barnes, his chief assistant, all week.
Only four of the 19 horses that ran in the Kentucky Derby made the 10-hour van ride to Pimlico Race Course for the Preakness on Saturday. In addition to Improbable (fifth across the finish line), there is War Of Will (eighth), Win Win Win (10th) and Bodexpress (14th). Each of those horses was moved up one spot in the official finish when Maximum Security was disqualified from first to 17th.
It’s the first time since 1996 that the winner of the Derby did not run in the Preakness. In that case, Grindstone was sidelined by bone chips in his knee. This year’s winner, Country House, was ruled out of the Preakness by trainer Bill Mott when he said the horse developed a cough. It’s also the first time since 1951 that none of the top four finishers made the trip east for the second leg of the Triple Crown.
Baffert makes a case for several other horses.
— “War Of Will [at 4-1], he’s a really nice horse,” he said.
— “You’ve got Alwaysmining. He could have been the favorite,” Baffert said of the 8-1 Maryland-bred. “The horse has won six in a row. The local horses are always tough. They always run big here.”
— “You’ve got the one-two finishers from the Lexington Stakes,” he added of Owendale (10-1) and Anothertwistafate (6-1).
And what about Improbable?
“I don’t feel like I’m coming in here with Justify or American Pharoah,” Baffert said of his Triple Crown winners in 2018 and 2015, respectively. “[Improbable] is a nice horse but he needs to improve.”
The 3-year-old colt has essentially the same ownership group as Justify. And, jockey Mike Smith will be riding Improbable on Saturday instead of Irad Ortiz Jr.
“I was just trying to change it up a little bit and [Smith is] a California guy and we’re trying something new,” Baffert said. “We’re trying to spark any kind of magic we can.”
Smith is the only California rider in the race, the same as the previous two years.
“I certainly think that we haven’t seen his best race yet, although he showed signs of brilliance at different times,” Smith said of Improbable. “If I can get on him for the first time, which sometimes works really well for me, and get him to run one of those AA-plus races, he’s not without a chance of winning the whole thing.”
Improbable is the only horse in the Preakness to have won a Grade 1 stakes race, and even that wasn’t one of the major preps. He won last year’s Los Alamitos Futurity by five lengths, the third and most recent win of his career.
Another thing different about the Preakness this year will be the weather. Three of the last four races have been run over very sloppy tracks. This year, the weather should be near-perfect, which works in Improbable’s favor.
“There was a time early when Drayden [Van Dyke] rode him and he just drew away and looked like Secretariat running through the lane,” Smith said of Improbable’s second race, a 7 1/4-length win in the Street Sense Stakes at Churchill Downs. “You can tell when he loves something in his body action. … But his body language does change a little on an off track. But he’s talented and he’s a trier.”
Baffert’s body language is also a little different.
“I like coming here with a Pharoah or a Justify, believe me it’s a lot more fun,” Baffert said. “It’s a different vibe here because you didn’t win the Derby and you’re not trying to knock off a Derby winner. That’s the only difference in the vibe.”
It’s now up to 13 horses to figure out who has the best vibe.