Country House, the 65-1 longshot who was handed a Kentucky Derby victory by disqualification, will not run in the May 18 Preakness Stakes because of a developing illness, the first time in 23 years that the Derby winner will not compete for the second jewel in the Triple Crown.
“He developed a little bit of a cough this morning,” trainer Bill Mott told the Daily Racing Form on Tuesday. “His appetite is good. He doesn’t have a fever. But he’s coughing. We drew blood. He’s acting like he’s going to get sick. He’s off the training list, and if he’s off the training list, he’s off the Preakness list.”
Mott’s announcement means there will be no Triple Crown winner in 2019. Justify pulled off the feat last year, and American Pharoah did it in 2015.
Trainer Shug McGaughey said Tuesday that his Derby runner-up, Code of Honor, also will not come to Baltimore. Mott did not even consider taking his other Derby contender, third-place finisher Tacitus, on to Baltimore.
The absence of Country House and Maximum Security will leave the Preakness without an obvious lead story line. War of Will, the Derby contender most directly affected by Maximum Security’s controversial swerve, is expected to be in the field. Trainer Bob Baffert will seek his eighth Preakness victory with Improbable, who went off as the Derby favorite.
“While the connections of Kentucky Derby winner Country House have chosen not to run in this year’s Preakness, ... it doesn’t take away from the excitement and thrill of this legendary event,” the Maryland Jockey Club and the Stronach Group said in a statement Tuesday. “We anticipate an outstanding group of horses who will race in this year’s Preakness Stakes, and we anticipate there will be more interest from owners and trainers, who have until Wednesday, May 15 to make a final decision on whether to race.”
The $1.5 million race will feature one of the better 3-year-old fields of the year and is still expected to draw a massive crowd with its combination of sporting competition and infield entertainment. But the Preakness is now in the position frequently faced by the organizers of the Belmont Stakes — the third race in the Triple Crown — when that crown is no longer on the line: Attendance and television ratings inevitably drop under those circumstances.
“Certainly, the allure of the Preakness is that you know the only way you’re going to have a Triple Crown is if the Derby winner also wins at Pimlico,” said Alan Foreman, longtime general counsel for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association. “With few exceptions, we get the Derby winner, and that’s what sparks the interest in the Preakness — is the Derby winner a super horse? So, yeah, this certainly is a different year.”
Poor injury luck and the general reluctance of modern trainers to run on short rest have left the race without a hook for casual sports fans.
“It’s a shame,” Foreman said. “It’s not that we’ve done anything wrong or the Stronach Group has done anything wrong. We’re just a victim of circumstances this year.”
War of Will’s trainer, Mark Casse, who might benefit from diminished competition, tried to put as positive a spin on the news as possible. “It’s unfortunate,” he said in a text. “But the Preakness is still the Preakness. It’s still a great race.”
The morning after the Derby, Mott said he felt obligated to point Country House toward the Preakness but seemed reluctant about the two-week turnaround. The Hall of Fame trainer said he was thrilled when he initially thought Country House finished second and would face no pressure to enter the Preakness.
“Having the Derby winner, you’re pretty much forced to go into the Preakness,” he said. “It’s like if you don’t, you’ve got no [guts], and what’s wrong with the horse?”
Country House will become just the fifth Derby winner in 60 years to skip the Preakness.
The last Derby winner to skip the Preakness was Grindstone, who missed the second jewel of the Triple Crown in 1996 because of a bone chip in his right knee.
Grindstone’s trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, intended to bring him to Pimlico in 1996, before he was derailed. He never raced again after his Derby victory.
The previous Derby champion to skip the Preakness, Spend a Buck in 1985, snubbed the second jewel of the Triple Crown for the Jersey Derby at since-closed Garden State Park. The motivation in that case was purely financial; Spend a Buck stood to pick up a $2 million bonus because he’d already won the Cherry Hill Mile and the Garden State Stakes. The winner’s purse for the Preakness was about $300,000 at the time, chump change by comparison.
Spend a Buck won the Jersey Derby, providing a windfall for owner Dennis Diaz, even as some turf writers derided the violation of tradition.
Three years before that, in 1982, trainer Eddie Gregson opted to steer his longshot Derby winner, Gato Del Sol, past the Preakness in hopes of capturing the Belmont Stakes. Gato Del Sol did finish second in the third jewel of the Triple Crown but was soundly beaten by Conquistador Cielo.
Pimlico general manager Chick Lang showed what he thought of Gregson’s decision by sticking a goat in the stall usually reserved for the Derby champion.
The Old Grandstand — the last remaining historic section of Pimlico Race Course — is being shut down a month before the upcoming Preakness Stakes after an engineering firm determined that 6,670 seats in the open-air seating area “is no longer suitable to sustain that level of load bearing weight.”