As the owners and trainers of the horses Justify left behind on the backstretch in the Kentucky Derby tried to decide whether to run in this year’s Preakness, Chuck Zacney and John Servis weighed their options last week with Diamond King.
With a spot reserved in the starting gate Saturday at Pimlico Race Course for the winner of the Federico Tesio Stakes for the third straight year, the owner and trainer of the Kentucky-bred bay colt waited to see how the early entries into the field in Baltimore played out.
After strongly considering to run their horse in last Saturday’s Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont Park instead, the two horsemen, who separately were part of winning Preakness teams, decided May 10 to try to win the second leg of the 2018 Triple Crown together.
History tells us it will be a tall order for Diamond King.
Since 1981, when the Tesio was first held at Laurel Park, only one horse has followed up a win in what many consider a tuneup for the Preakness with a victory in the Preakness. That was by Maryland-bred Deputed Testamony in 1983.
In fact, since Deputed Testamony’s 2¾ -length win over Kentucky Derby runner-up Desert Wine, nearly as many Tesio winners have finished last (three, most recently Bodhisattva in 2015) as have finished in the money (four, most recently Icabad Crane, who was third in 2008).
Diamond King will go off at 30-1, matching Sporting Chance as the longest shot in the eight-horse field.
Co-owner Zacney said after Diamond King drew the No. 4 post postion Wedneday that he likes where his horse is positioned coming out of the starting gate.
Recalling a conversation he had with trainer Servis before the post positions were announced, Zacney said: “I wanted more of an inside post. He said, ‘Let’s go for the middle.’ We can kind of sit off the pace of Justify and I have to believe Quip.
“He’s [Diamond King] pretty much all speed and he’s got to go, as well. It’s going to be interesting to see how the early pace shakes out. We’ve got a top jockey [Jose Castellano] and the horse is doing really well. Hopefully the track’s in decent shape. That’s the only concern.”
Of the 36 Tesio winners, 16, including 2017 automatic qualifier Twisted Tom, did not even saddle up for the Preakness. Servis, whose only previous Preakness entry was 2004 winner Smarty Jones, understands the dilemma.
Servis acknowledges that the Preakness is definitely a step up in competition for Diamond King.
“I think he’s that good a horse, I just didn’t know and I don’t know if he’s that good of horse right now,” Servis said. “The original plan was to run in the Peter Pan and not the Preakness. But talking to Mr. Zacney, we decided let’s plan on the Peter Pan but not make definite decisions until we see the Derby and see how things shake out.”
Servis acknowledged that there are different expectations for Diamond King than there were for Smarty Jones, who was coming in off winning the Derby.
“When we went to the Preakness [in 2004], we went thinking we had the best horse and they had to beat us,” Servis said in a telephone interview last week. “I think [Justify’s trainer] Bob Baffert’s probably thinking that right now.”
The preparation will be much different as well, Servis said.
“There’s a difference in the training because Smarty was coming off a mile-and-a-quarter race [the Kentucky Derby] and running right back in two weeks. There wasn’t a whole lot of preparation necessary,” Servis said.
“With Diamond King, it’s a little different. He’ll have four weeks between races and he’ll have a couple of [workouts]. He’ll be ready. It’s just a question of whether he’s good enough. I think there’s always an advantage to having a fresh horse as long as they’re ready.”
There’s a bit of a caveat here.
“Bob Baffert’s horse is lightly raced and pretty fresh, too,” Servis said of Justify, the first horse in 136 years to win the Kentucky Derby after not racing as a 2-year-old.
This will be the third race for which Servis has trained Diamond King. After the horse won the Heft Stakes at Laurel on Dec. 30, Zacney sold a piece of the ownership and Servis took over as Diamond King’s trainer. He was familiar with the horse from Philadelphia Park.
“I saw him on the track breeze a couple of times, and I’ve run against him with other horses,” Servis said.
Diamond King won three of his first four races before Servis took over the training. The one race he didn’t win didn’t came in late November at Churchill Downs, when Diamond King clipped heels with another horse early in the Kentucky Jockey Club and threw jockey Frankie Pennington.
After Diamond King finished third in the Swale at Gulfstream Park in early February, Servis had a different feeling about his horse.
“Going into the Swale, I didn’t feel great about the race,” Servis recalled. “After the race, I felt really good. He ran much, much better than I expected.”
Scratched from the Private Terms Stakes at Laurel on March 17, Diamond King won the Tesio Stakes there as a 2-1 favorite with Pennington aboard April 21. It earned the horse straight entry into the Preakness, where he might have to prove he belongs on this big a stage.
Zacney, who was part of the winning team with Afleet Alex in 2005, thought the Preakness was a possibility when he purchased the horse last spring.
“The story goes that we got this horse at the sale last May and as soon as I saw him train I never said he's a [Kentucky] Derby horse. I always said this is a Preakness horse,” Zacney told the Paulick Report last week.
Servis and Zacney had different experiences going into their only previous Preakness — with the same result.
In 2004, Smarty Jones went in as the 8-5 favorite after winning the Kentucky Derby and blew away the field at Pimlico with an 11½-length victory. It was — and still remains — the widest margin of victory in the history of the race.
The following year, Afleet Alex was an even-money favorite after finishing third behind 50-1 long shot Giacomo in the Kentucky Derby. Despite nearly going down after clipping heels with Scrappy T going into the backstretch, Afleet Alex won by 4¾ lengths.
Despite the long odds, Servis knows that a victory Saturday is not out of the realm of possibility, though he is aware that overwhelming favorite Justify (1-2) could likely become the eighth Derby winner since 2000 to prevail at Pimlico.
“The best horse doesn’t always win,” Servis said. “I was always taught that you should never be afraid of one horse. Two, yeah. But never one. You never know what will happen. But I know that my horse is ready to rock and roll.”