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Bob Baffert’s Improbable the probable favorite heading into Preakness

Kentucky Derby entrant Improbable runs during a workout at Churchill Downs Wednesday, May 1, 2019, i
Kentucky Derby entrant Improbable runs during a workout at Churchill Downs on May 1. Improbable likely will be the favorite to win the Preakness Stakes.
(Charlie Riedel / Associated Press)

As the controversy over who should have been declared the winner of the Kentucky Derby continues to fester, the Preakness Stakes is doing its best to find relevance amid its own turmoil before the race Saturday.

Maximum Security, the disqualified winner of the Kentucky Derby, won’t be there. Country House, the elevated winner of the Kentucky Derby, won’t be there. Runner-up Code of Honor and third-place Tacitus won’t be there.

It’s the first time since 1951 that the first four horses across the finish line in the Kentucky Derby have passed on the trip to Baltimore. It’s the first time since 1996 that the Derby winner has not gone to Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore. That year Grindstone had bone chips in his right knee.

Pimlico is a crumbling icon that might lose the race after next year. Its future is even more uncertain than who the winner of this year’s race will be.

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So, it’s against that backdrop of chaos that we offer five story lines to watch this week for the Preakness Stakes.

Why should anyone care about this year’s Preakness?

The winner of the race, regardless of how little we know about him, will have the tag of winning a Triple Crown race and that immediately gets him a spot in the breeding shed. Oxbow, the 2013 winner, won only three races lifetime, with victories in a maiden race, the LeComte Stakes and the Preakness. He was second in the Belmont.

Then there is 2011 winner Shackleford, who won six races lifetime including the Grade 1 Clark and Metropolitan Handicap. He had second-place finishes in the Haskell, Indiana Derby, Kelso and Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile. Oxbow stands for a $15,000 stallion fee and Shackleford for $20,000. Even though Shackleford had a much better career, being a Preakness winner gets you a better seat at the table. And that’s why there will be 10 or 11 entered to run in the Preakness.

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Who is the likely favorite?

Even if Country House had run, the Kentucky Derby winner would most likely have been no better than third on the odds board. Bob Baffert’s Improbable, who was the Derby favorite, looks to hold that honor again. Even though Improbable is winless in three starts this year, he’s been in tough company. He was fifth, and moved to fourth, in the Kentucky Derby after getting boxed up for most of the race. Baffert is looking for his eighth Preakness win, so he knows how to master the place known as Old Hilltop. He has a big-time jockey switch to Mike Smith. And, finally, there is no real standout in the race.

Is there an underdog horse we should be rooting for?

The sentimental favorite is Alwaysmining, a Maryland-bred racing in his home state. If you can overlook the fact that no Maryland-bred has won the race since 1983, when Deputed Testamony took the second leg of the Triple Crown, then this might be your horse. Alwaysmining has won his last six, including an 11-length win in the Federico Tesio Stakes. Now, all those wins did come at nearby Laurel Park, which isn’t a top national circuit. The colt is trained by Kelly Rubley, a former middle school science teacher with two master’s degrees.

Who else from California will be there?

It’s slim pickings from California. In addition to the presumptive favorite Improbable there is Anothertwistafate, who is stabled at Golden Gate Fields. Trained by Blaine Wright, the colt won the El Camino Real Derby and got an automatic entry into the Preakness. He finished second to Cutting Humor in the Sunland Derby and second to Owendale in the Lexington Stakes. He fell just short of having enough qualifying points to make the Derby field. “He’s a big, long-striding horse,” Wright said after the colt worked at Golden Gate on Saturday. “This will be five weeks between races, so I sent him out going a mile. … Now all we have to do hopefully is travel.” His plane leaves on Tuesday.

How much longer will the Preakness be at Pimlico?

The people of Baltimore seem to adore the Preakness and believe it is part of the city’s fabric. The problem is the place is a dump. This year they closed down 7,000 grandstand seats because they are unsafe. The track needs to be rebuilt at a cost of about $400 million. Pimlico currently runs only 12 days a year. This is yet another crisis the Stronach Group is dealing with, in addition to the horse deaths at Santa Anita. The Maryland Jockey Club, which is Stronach, in the last few days averted a strike by union workers at the track. They have been without a contract since the end of 2017.

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The Stronach Group wants to create a “super track” at Laurel Park and has offered to finance the improvements. It is state law that the Preakness cannot be moved out of Baltimore without legislative consent. It has rankled some that Stronach has used the bulk of its state subsidies to improve Laurel, not Pimlico. The race will be run there at least one more year after this year. After that, it’s a matter of who can best exercise their power.


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