With a full week of preparations to go, the 2019 Preakness already figures to go down as one of the strangest in recent memory.
Kentucky Derby champion Country House won’t make the trip to Pimlico Race Course. Neither will Maximum Security, the horse who actually crossed the finish line first at Churchill Downs.
Those who care about thoroughbred racing are still debating the unprecedented disqualification that decided the first jewel of the Triple Crown, while Maryland fans have turned to their annual ritual of speculating how long dilapidated Pimlico can hold up as the Preakness host.
With so much going on, the race itself feels lost in the shuffle. Nonetheless, here are five storylines to watch for the 144th running of the Preakness on May 18.
How much will the race be hurt by the absence of Country House and Maximum Security?
The Derby winner almost always drives the narrative heading into the Preakness. Is he a Triple Crown contender or a pretender who can’t stand up to the two-week turnaround?
With Country House sitting out the race because of a developing illness (or because trainer Bill Mott wants no part of the Triple Crown schedule, if you believe the skeptics), we won’t have that in 2019. But let’s face it; even if Country House had come to Baltimore, he would have arrived as a very unusual Derby champion, the first ever to triumph because of an in-race disqualification. The Derby winner usually enters the Preakness as a heavy favorite, but Mott’s horse might have been the third choice in the morning line.
Regardless, if he and Maximum Security had both pointed toward the Preakness, the race could have been cast as a rematch of the controversial finish in Kentucky. Instead, with none of the top four Derby finishers set to run at Pimlico, there’s hardly any carryover from one jewel of the Triple Crown to the next.
The Belmont Stakes deals with this frequently, and we see the plummeting attendance and television ratings every time that race is run without a Triple Crown on the line. It’s a far less typical problem for the Preakness, which has included the Derby champion every year since Grindstone had to bow out with a bad knee in 1996. No matter what happens May 18, the race already feels diminished.
Can Bob Baffert snatch his eighth Preakness win with Improbable?
With all the Derby horses who finished ahead of him sitting this race out, Improbable seems likely to go off as the favorite in Baltimore, just as he did in Kentucky.
He’s a moody colt, but Baffert was actually quite pleased with his demeanor heading into the starting gate at Churchill Downs. Improbable just never fought his way out of the heavy traffic that clumped up behind the leaders in the 19-horse race. Baffert compared it to to the scrum you might see in a youth soccer game.
The Hall of Fame trainer will switch up his formula for Improbable, replacing Irad Ortiz Jr. with his favorite big-race rider, Mike Smith. The Triple Crown-winning Smith actually beat Improbable aboard Omaha Beach in the Arkansas Derby and then saw his plans upended when Omaha Beach had to be scratched from the Derby field.
Improbable hasn’t won in three starts as a 3-year-old, but he’ll perhaps face a weaker field in Baltimore than he did in his previous two races. And he’s always run hard, even when his focus was in question. Baffert is already the most prolific winner in Preakness history (tied with 19th century trainer R. Wyndham Walden). He’s bringing this colt to Pimlico because he likes his chances to add to that total.
Can Alwaysmining become the first Maryland-bred Preakness champion since Deputed Testamony?
The winner of the Federico Tesio Stakes at Laurel Park usually runs in the Preakness and is usually treated as an also-ran with little chance to challenge the top carryovers from the Derby field.
But Alwaysmining makes for a more tantalizing local favorite. Not only did he win the April 20 Tesio by 11½ lengths, but he’s also won his past six starts going back to October, several in similarly dominating fashion. Though he hasn’t faced elite competition, his speed figures say he can’t be dismissed.
Deputed Testamony’s name is frequently invoked around Pimlico because he was the last Maryland-bred horse to win the Preakness, way back in 1983. There haven’t been many strong candidates in the years since, so Alwaysmining has a chance to invigorate a state industry that has hungered to regain national respect.
His trainer, Kelly Rubley, is a former middle school science teacher who only adds to the charm of his story.
Maryland trainer Mike Trombetta also seems inclined to enter ninth-place Derby finisher Win Win Win in the Preakness field. So if we can’t have the Derby champion, perhaps 2019 is the year to buy local.
Does the rest of the field hold much interest?
No Derby horse suffered more from Maximum Security’s swerve off the rail than War of Will, who was running well and almost had to stop in his tracks. The Mark Casse-trained colt finished seventh; he deserved better.
Between that near-calamity and his poor outing in the Louisiana Derby, War of Will has suffered through a rough stretch. But it’s worth remembering he won graded stakes in both January and February and seemed on track to become a top Derby contender. Casse is more aggressive than most top trainers in bringing his Derby horses to the Preakness. Perhaps he’ll be rewarded this time around.
The field will be packed with fresh contenders, some of whom merit attention.
Anothertwistafate could not accumulate enough qualifying points to make the Derby field, but ran fairly well to finish runner-up in both the Sunland Derby and Lexington Stakes. Owendale beat him with a career-best performance in the latter race, stamping himself as a possible contender on the rise.
If you’re looking for an exciting wild card, check out Warrior’s Charge, who wasn’t originally nominated for the Triple Crown series but beat a very good allowance field by 6½ lengths on April 12 at Oaklawn Park. His owners paid $150,000 to make him eligible for the Preakness, which tells you they think he has a real chance.
Will heightened anxiety around the racing industry overshadow the Preakness?
In the week leading up to the Derby, trainers, owners and racing officials talked about how disastrous it would be to have a breakdown in the most scrutinized race on the American calendar. The sport was already reeling from a spate of 23 horse deaths earlier this year at Santa Anita Park, and many worried a Derby tragedy could embolden the sport’s harshest critics.
That backdrop made the near-collision between Maximum Security and War of Will all the more nerve-racking.
Now that the Triple Crown series has moved to Baltimore, safety concerns will pair with local fears about losing the Preakness to Laurel Park. The issue hit the state legislature in a big way this year, but there’s still no resolution in sight. Will elected leaders spend hundreds of millions of dollars to rehabilitate Pimlico? Or will The Stronach Group, riven by its own power struggles, persuade them to move the state’s signature sporting event?
These questions will percolate around Pimlico on May 18, no matter which horse ends up in the winner’s circle wearing a blanket of flowers.
144th Preakness Stakes
Second jewel of Triple Crown series
Pimlico Race Course
Saturday, May 18, 6:40 p.m.