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Preakness embraces its reliable role of following the Kentucky Derby

Epicenter runs on a track.
Epicenter is a 6-5 favorite to win the Preakness Stakes on Saturday in the absence of Kentucky Derby winner Rich Strike.
(Charlie Riedel / Associated Press)

You don’t hear about backyard Preakness parties. It’s hard to pull off a blind-draw betting pool with only nine horses. Yes, there are still hats and a signature drink, but the Preakness has its own identity.

It’s usually the first public appearance of the Kentucky Derby winner, but not this year.

It’s a race that a filly has won six times, and there is a reasonable chance it can happen this year.

And it always raises the question if two weeks is too soon to bring back a horse after a major race such as the Kentucky Derby. Six of the nine horses did not run in the Derby this year.

But to get to the personality of the race and put it in today’s vernacular, you need look no further than the children in the long-running sitcom “Modern Family.”

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Rich Strike may not be at the Preakness, but there is still a lot of talk of how he won the Kentucky Derby. The consensus: It had to do with two horses that came from Dubai.

“The Kentucky Derby is like Haley Dunphy, the glamorous one, very pretty, maybe not the brightest one but the one who attracts the most general interest,” said veteran racing journalist Ron Flatter, now the managing editor at the website Horse Racing Nation.

“The Belmont Stakes is like Luke Dunphy, precocious, but sometimes shows you moments of brightness and other times you wonder, ‘What is he thinking?’

“The Preakness is like Alex Dunphy. She is the one that is never going to disappoint you. She’s reliable. She always delivers something smart, something intelligent, something where you say, ‘We can build the future here.’ But often the forgotten one because of being the middle child.”

18-time Emmy winner ‘Modern Family’s’ central characters were flawed but funny. And always loving.

And then there is the horse race.

Saturday’s race, the 147th one, lost status when the owner of Rich Strike, the Kentucky Derby winner, decided to give his horse more rest and skip the second leg of the Triple Crown and point to the Belmont Stakes.

But Epicenter, the horse everyone thought was going to win the Kentucky Derby, is here and installed as the 6-5 favorite.

Secret Oath, the filly and winner of the Kentucky Oaks, is mysteriously only the third choice at 9-2. Early Voting, a horse that has run only three races and has not run for six weeks, is the 7-2 second choice.

“I wanted another shot at [beating Rich Strike], maybe it’s just me being ignorant,” said Steve Asmussen, Epicenter’s trainer. “But you’re here to compete. I’m sure they’ll meet up again down the road, hopefully.”

The race is expected to set up with Early Voting, Armagnac (12-1) and possibly Fenwick (50-1) going for the lead in the 1 3/16-mile race, a sixteenth of a mile shorter than the Kentucky Derby. Secret Oath and Epicenter are likely to be in a stalking position just off the lead, and hoping not to get caught up in fast early fractions, which is how Rich Strike was able to sneak to the wire first in a huge upset at Churchill Downs.

Rich Strike overcame the longest odds on the board to beat out race favorite Epicenter for a stunning victory in the 148th running of the Kentucky Derby.

The rest of the field, Simplification (6-1), Creative Minister (10-1), Skippylongstocking (20-1) and Happy Jack (30-1) are just hoping the fast horses go too fast and tire, leaving them an opportunity to close in the stretch.

“It’s the sort of thing where we’ll see what the speed has to say,” said Joel Rosario, Epicenter’s jockey. “And we’ll play off of that. I’m going to ride him with a lot of confidence, and if we’re the best, we’ll win.”

Because the Pimlico Race Course is generally used just three weeks a year, this will be the first race for all the horses over the dirt surface. Predictably, the trainers all believe their horse likes this track.

“I actually think [Secret Oath] is training better these two weeks than she did the two weeks before the Oaks,” said her trainer Wayne Lukas. “Even with the trip here, it seems like she is taking a hold of it. That might be maturity and getting into the groove of what we really want to do.”

Another factor will be the weather, with temperatures expected to reach at least 96 degrees. Horses, and people, prefer cooler weather when exerting themselves.

“I think the variable we’re not sure of is if it is actually 95, 96 degrees here,” said Asmussen. “We know it can get pretty sticky here in Baltimore. All of them are going to have to deal with that, but [Epicenter is] a big horse turning back in 14 days. [You have to] make sure he’s drinking plenty of water and he’s hydrated, just like your kids.”

Doug O’Neill, who won this race in 2012 with I’ll Have Another and has Happy Jack this year, doesn’t see the weather as an issue.

“It’s so out of our control,” O’Neill said. “I’m not that concerned. [Happy Jack] is a pretty laid back horse. Not much seems to bother him so I don’t think weather will be a factor.”

Trainer Bob Baffert was denied an emergency stay by the Kentucky Court of Appeals and already has begun to take down signage at his Santa Anita barn.

One other thing that distinguishes the Preakness is it is held in a building in which significant upkeep is a phrase seldom heard. Recently it was a common occurrence to have no running water for periods of time because of a broken pipe. Part of the grandstand is closed for safety reasons.

This year, the track has added a second deck to the big infield tent and other facilities have been added, making the horses disappear for those watching on track for a lot of the backstretch.

And this year, officials are hoping the excessive heat won’t result in a power outage.

Yes, the Preakness is different, but reliable.


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