Preakness has long been a haven for favorites

Anthony Bonomo doesn’t put much stock in the fact that Always Dreaming, the horse he owns with childhood friend Vinnie Viola and watched win the Kentucky Derby two weeks ago at Churchill Downs, goes into the 142nd Preakness Stakes as a heavy favorite.

Nor does it make much of a difference to Bonomo.

“I’ve had horses that are 50-1 and horses that are even money and I always felt the same internally, I’m always nervous as hell,” Bonomo said after the draw was announced Wednesday at Pimlico Race Course and Always Dreaming was made a 4-5 choice. (Saturday morning the Derby winner was being bet at 3-2.)

Bonomo recalled a bet on a horse he didn’t own, on the undercard of 23-1 longshot Toby’s Corner’s shocking victory in the 2011 Wood Memorial, when much-hyped Uncle Mo came to Aqueduct a few weeks before the Kentucky Derby and lost as an astounding 1-9 favorite.

Though he couldn’t even remember the horse’s name, Bonomo has a clear memory of what it paid.  

“I meant to bet a 3-1 favorite and reversed the numbers and I wound up betting a horse that paid $128,” Bonomo said. “Instead of betting the 3 horse in the fourth race, I bet the 4 horse in the third race. That has always made me understand that odds are there for the bettors but not the horses.”

While longshots have won the Preakness – most recently 13-1 choice Oxbow in 2013 – it has long been viewed as a haven for favorites, especially compared to the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes. History bears that out.

According to the Daily Racing Form, a little more than half (72) of Preakness winners came in as favorites, compared to 42.1 percent (56 of 133) at the Belmont and just 35.7 percent (51 of 143) at the Kentucky Derby.

The longest shot to win the Preakness was Master Derby, at 23-1 in 1975, compared to 1913 Kentucky Derby champion Donerail, which went off at 91-1, and 2002 Belmont Stakes winner Sarava, a 70-1 longshot.

Many believe that the smaller field at Pimlico is a big part of the lack of longshot winners, especially compared to the crowded field and the logjam coming out of the starting gates that seems to affect the outcome nearly every year at Churchill Downs, or the fact that Belmont's 1.5-mile distance is longer than the Kentucky Derby (1 1/4) and Preakness (1 3/16).

Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey, who counts a pair of Preakness victories among his six wins in the Triple Crown series, said this week that there’s another reason why Always Dreaming is considered such a prohibitive favorite.

“The Derby form holds up pretty well here,” Bailey said. “They do come in with a target on their back, a bigger target. Even if they were favored in the Derby, with 20 horses you become anonymous at times. With the shorter field here, everybody’s looking to knock you off.”

Much will depend on the strategy taken by Always Dreaming’s trainer, Todd Pletcher, and jockey John Velazquez.

“A lot of times the Derby winner will play it safe and take the easy, safe route, which is usually wide around horses, so there’s an opportunity for a longer shot to slip on the inside and have a better ‘trip’ from gate to wire than the Derby winner,” Bailey said.

Conversely, the old sports adage of playing with nothing to lose might take hold with a longshot in horse racing.

Trainer Mark Casse, whose Classic Empire will go into Saturday’s race as the second favorite and was being bet at 2-1 on Saturday morning, said it seemed to play into what jockey Corey Lanerie did aboard Lookin At Lee in the Kentucky Derby. Coming in at 20-1, Lookin At Lee finished second.

“He needed for everything to go his way to be competitive and that’s what happened,” Casse said. “I think when you have longshots, I think there’s a different strategy in how you run the race.  I don’t think there’s anything different about the way you train them.”          

It could also depend on the surface. Despite thunderstorms Friday, Pimlico’s track should be a smoother ride for Always Dreaming than it was last year for Nyquist.

A year ago, the Kentucky Derby champion and 3-5 favorite lost on a sloppy track to Exaggerator, who came in at 3-1 after finishing second at Churchill Downs. That Always Dreaming won this year’s Kentucky Derby on a similarly mucky surface after winning his earlier races on dry tracks adds to the confidence many have in him in winning again Saturday.

“I don’t think he has an Achilles heel relative to the condition of the racetrack,” Bailey said.   

In the field of 10 horses that expects to start the race, Conquest Mo Money is considered the most legitimate longshot (opening at 7-1) with a chance to upset Always Dreaming. Though Lookin At Lee is 8-1, Bailey doesn’t consider the Kentucky Derby runnerup as a longshot.

Neither does Scott Blasi, the assistant trainer for both Lookin At Lee and Hence.

“We were just second in the Kentucky Derby,” Blasi said Wednesday. “I know where the oddsmakers have us. That being said, I don’t feel like we’re a longshot.  I feel like we’re running a very nice horse.”

In speaking about odds in horse racing, Blasi likes to use a line repeated often by his boss, Steve Asmussen. The trainers will be going for their third Preakness victory together.

“Steve has the greatest line ever – they’re so sure of the outcome, they’ll let you gamble on it,” Blasi said.

Bonomo, who along with Viola began betting on horses when they were growing up in Brooklyn and accompanied their fathers to Aqueduct and Belmont, isn’t sure what will happen to Always Dreaming Saturday at Pimlico.

“If he loses because someone beats him, then hats off to them,” Bonomo said. “We all know what racing is – anything can happen when those gates open. To me I’ve never really focused on the odds. I think there’s more pressure on you [as an owner]. Thank God horses don’t know their odds.”

don.markus@baltsun.com

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