There was a hole at the heart of the Preakness on Wednesday as contenders arrived at Pimlico Race Course to begin their preparations for the 144th running of Maryland's most important race.
Preakness week usually begins in earnest when the Kentucky Derby winner steps off his van from the airport, the undisputed king of this thoroughbred prom. Cameras click. Onlookers murmur in delight as they glimpse the potential Triple Crown winner with their own eyes.
But for the first time in 23 years, the Derby champ isn't coming. Country House remains at Churchill Downs, recovering from an illness. Maximum Security, the horse that actually crossed the finish line first, has moved on to Monmouth Park in New Jersey.
In their absence, the $1.5 million Preakness is left with a diverse field of 13 contenders, but no central star.
"It's wide open and if we're totally honest with ourselves, it lost a lot of pizzazz by not getting the Derby winner," said six-time Preakness-winning trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who will saddle Market King for this year's race. "The Preakness is a lot more exciting if you're bringing that horse with a chance for the second leg [of the Triple Crown] and without him in here or even the top four as it turned out, it has developed a little bit of a vanilla atmosphere."
Improbable was listed as the 5-2 morning-line favorite at the post-position draw, held Wednesday afternoon at Power Plant Live.
The Bob Baffert-trained colt went off as the favorite in the Derby but ultimately finished fourth, unable to escape the heavy traffic generated by a 19-horse field.
Baffert didn't attend the draw, but the seven-time Preakness winner immediately tempered expectations, noting that Improbable is the first horse he's brought to Pimlico on a three-race losing streak.
"I'm fine with it," he sad after learning Improbable will start from the No. 4 post Saturday.
"We're very satisfied," said Elliott Walden, president and CEO of WinStar Farm, which co-owns Improbable with Starlight Racing and the China Horse Club, the same group that backed Triple Crown winner Justify in 2018.
"I feel like we're favored by default this year," Walden said when asked to compare the two experiences. "But this horse has a good resume. He ran very well in the Derby without hitting the board."
War of Will, the horse most directly affected by the move that got Maximum Security disqualified at the Derby, is the 4-1 second choice in the morning line.
Trainer Mark Casse could not be happier with the colt's training form. "Right now, all systems are go," he said after War of Will galloped at Pimlico on Wednesday morning. "Unless something changes in the next few days, I think we're going to be extremely tough."
Casse suffered bad luck, drawing the No. 1 post just as he did for the Derby. But he's not sweating the lack of star power in the field.
"For me, it's really not going to be any different, because I still want to win," he said. "It's unfortunate that the Derby winner and of course, Maximum Security, aren't here. But I understand that. It's an extremely tough grind under normal circumstances, and then unfortunately, with the weather, the Derby was probably a little harder."
Casse suggested the Derby's widely debated finish might actually attract viewers to the Preakness, even if none of the horses involved are here. "A little controversy is not always a bad thing," he said.
Alwaysmining, seeking to become the first Maryland-bred Preakness winner since Deputed Testamony in 1983, is the 8-1 fourth choice in the morning line. He'll break from the No. 7 post for trainer Kelly Rubley, who's seeking to become the first woman to win the Preakness.
Alwaysmining has won six races in a row, capped by his 11 ½-length victory in the Federico Tesio Stakes at Laurel Park. When Walden was asked which fresh challengers scare him, he pointed immediately to the Maryland-bred.
"It's like being in a dream," said Caroline Bentley, who owns Alwaysmining with her husband, Greg. "During all the planning and bringing the horse along, we thought this was a possible endgame, but we didn't know."
"I'm not by any means thinking it's going to be an easy race," said Maryland trainer Mike Trombetta, who will saddle 15-1 choice Win Win Win for the Preakness.
Win Win Win finished ninth in the Derby, never settling down on the sloppy surface, according to jockey Julian Pimentel. Trombetta said he's rebounded well during morning workouts at Fair Hill Training Center in Elkton, so the trainer hopes for a better performance on a dry track at Pimlico. Win Win Win will start from the No. 13 post.
Warrior's Charge is one of the most intriguing fresh contenders in the field. The 12-1 choice wasn't originally nominated for the Triple Crown series, but his owners paid $150,000 to put him in the Preakness after he dominated an excellent allowance field at Oaklawn Park on April 12. He'll start from the No. 3 post for trainer Brad Cox.
Stablemate Owendale will join him in the field, coming off a victory in the April 13 Lexington Stakes. The performance was a clear career-best for the Cox-trained colt, who's a 10-1 choice in the Preakness line and will start from the No. 5 post.
Anothertwistafate is a 6-1 third choice in the morning line coming off runner-up finishes in the Sunland Derby and Lexington Stakes. He'll start from the No. 12 post for trainer Blaine Wright.
Bourbon War ran a disappointing fourth in the Florida Derby to fall out of contention for a spot in the Kentucky Derby. But trainer Mark Henning will take his shot at the Preakness with the 12-1 choice. Bourbon War will start from the No. 2 post.
Bodexpress, 13th in the Derby, will start from the No. 9 post as a 20-1 choice in the morning line.
Laughing Fox earned his Preakness shot by winning the Oaklawn Invitational on the same day as the Derby. He performed less well against elite competition in the Arkansas Derby and Rebel Stakes, so he's a 20-1 choice in the morning line. He'll start from the No. 11 post for Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen.
Signalman is a 30-1 longshot coming off a third-place finish in the Blue Grass Stakes. He'll start from the No. 8 post for trainer Ken McPeek.
Lukas' horse, Market King, is a 30-1 choice and will start from the No. 6 post.
The Preakness picked up a 13th runner, Dale Romans-trained Everfast, just before the Wednesday deadline for entries. After a fifth-place finish in the Pat Day Mile on the Derby undercard, he's a 50-1 choice in the morning line and will break from the No. 10 post.
With its mix of local stories, fresh challengers and Derby carryovers, the Preakness should be plenty competitive.
"Not having the Derby winner is most unfortunate, but it's still the second leg of the Triple Crown," said NBC analyst Randy Moss, who will provide commentary for Saturday's Preakness telecast. "It's still a very deep and competitive field."
Second jewel of Triple Crown series
Pimlico Race Course
Saturday, 6:48 p.m.
TV: Chs. 11, 4
(Post position, horse, odds)
1. War of Will, 4-1
2. Bourbon War, 12-1
3. Warrior's Charge, 12-1
4. Improbable, 5-2
5. Owendale, 10-1
6. Market King, 30-1
7. Alwaysmining, 8-1
8. Signalman, 30-1
9. Bodexpress, 20-1
10. Everfast, 50-1
11. Laughing Fox, 20-1
12. Anothertwistafate, 6-1
13. Win Win Win, 15-1