The 145th running of the Preakness Stakes will be defined by absence — no third Saturday in May, no crowd, no Triple Crown on the line.
When Belmont Stakes champion Tiz the Law went off as a heavy favorite in the Sept. 5 Kentucky Derby, he carried with him hopes for a potential Triple Crown coronation in Baltimore. It would have been another historical oddity in a year full of them but at least it would have provided a tasty hook for the postponed Preakness.
Tiz the Law could not surge past Authentic in the Derby, however, and with his defeat, the Preakness, already robbed of its festive atmosphere by the coronavirus pandemic, became just another good horse race.
The narrative fates have been unkind to Maryland’s 3-year-old thoroughbred showcase over the last two years; in 2019, Country House skipped the second leg of the Triple Crown after his controversial win by disqualification in the Derby.
But the Preakness will soldier forth, featuring Authentic at the top of a competitive field comparable to the one that ran at Churchill Downs. So with that in mind, here are five stories to watch as the Oct. 3 race approaches:
Can Authentic assert himself as the top 3-year-old in his class?
The crown belonged to Tiz the Law heading into the Derby, with analysts rhapsodizing over his poise, acceleration and relentless improvement. Authentic entered the big race with warts, namely his second-place finish in the Santa Anita Derby and his lack of vigor at the end of a victory in the 1 1/8-mile Haskell Invitational.
He wasn’t even regarded as the most talented 3-year-old in trainer Bob Baffert’s barn. Those plaudits went to injury casualties Nadal and Charlatan.
Jockey John Velazquez rode Authentic perfectly in the Derby, moving him from an outside post to the lead with minimal fuss and conserving energy where he could. But what would happen when Tiz the Law made his patented move at the top of the stretch?
Authentic answered that question with authority, holding his lead when Tiz the Law pulled side by side and ultimately leaving his rival behind.
In the most recent National Thoroughbred Racing Association ranking of 3 –year-olds, Authentic garnered 23 first-place votes to Tiz the Law’s 15. He could solidify that ranking with a victory in the Preakness.
It’s unfortunate that Tiz the Law will not show up for a rematch at Pimlico. With no Triple Crown on the line, trainer Barclay Tagg opted to rest him for the Nov. 7 Breeders' Cup Classic. But we shouldn’t hold that against Authentic, a worthy Derby champion who will have to beat a strong field to keep his momentum going.
Can Art Collector throw his hat into the top 3-year-old debate?
There was a missing actor in the Derby duel between Authentic and Tiz the Law and that was Art Collector.
This Kentucky-based colt, undefeated in four races this year, would have been co-second choice in the morning line. But trainer Tomas Drury scratched him five days before the race because of a nick to his left front heel. Bad luck for a potential hometown champion, but the scratch immediately set up Art Collector as a fresh challenger for the Preakness (a race his sire, Bernardini, won in 2006).
Drury was pleased with Art Collector’s 5/8-mile workout at Churchill Downs last weekend and said he’s thrilled to take his shot in Baltimore after the Derby disappointment. The Louisville native had never won a graded stakes before Art Collector took the Blue Grass at Keeneland in July.
The Preakness will present a step up in competition, but if Art Collector wins it, his resume would look nearly as good as those of Authentic and Tiz the Law.
Can Bob Baffert spin straw into gold after a rocky start to 2020?
The most famous and successful trainer in American racing found himself on the wrong end of headlines in the first half of this year. There was the career-ending condylar fracture for Nadal. Then Charlatan and the gifted filly Gamine had victories voided because of positive tests for the banned substance lidocaine. Baffert received a 15-day suspension for those violations, though he appealed, saying the horses were unintentionally exposed to the substance, possibly by an employee wearing a pain-relief patch.
Moments before the Derby, Baffert’s second contender, Thousand Words, flipped over in the paddock and was scratched by an on-site physician. Longtime assistant Jimmy Barnes suffered a broken wrist trying to settle the horse.
So Baffert could have been forgiven for writing off the 2020 Triple Crown series. Until Authentic, a horse he’d trained to peak form for the Derby, came through against Tiz the Law. The unexpected victory was Baffert’s record-tying sixth in the race he targets before all others.
Now, he’ll try to add to his decorated resume in the Preakness, where he’s won seven times, most recently with Justify in 2018. Baffert plans to saddle both Authentic and Thousand Words, who came out of the Derby spill uninjured. History says you’d better think twice before betting against him.
Which other contenders are worthy of our attention?
The make-up of the field remained murky in the run-up to Monday’s post-position draw.
Thousand Words is likely to be third choice in the morning line based on his upset of Honor A.P. in the Aug. 1 Shared Belief Stakes. He has to be considered a wild card given that his performance that day was an outlier, but Baffert does not seem overly concerned he’ll repeat his unruly Derby behavior.
Third-place Derby finisher Mr. Big News is expected in the field, but he’s won just twice in eight starts and did not threaten Authentic at Churchill Downs. Max Player, third in the Belmont and fifth in the Derby, has run consistently but has not matched the performances of the top contenders.
The accomplished filly Swiss Skydiver would add an appealing twist to the field if trainer Ken McPeek opts to enter her. He planned to decide after a workout Saturday at Churchill Downs. Swiss Skydiver finished second to Art Collector in the Blue Grass Stakes, so she has experience competing with the boys. She finished second in the all-filly Kentucky Oaks the day before the Derby.
Ny Traffic, eighth in the Derby, could also jump in late.
There’s quality at the top of this field, but it’s not deep in horses that appear to be serious threats to Baffert’s favorite.
Just how strange will this Preakness feel?
Questions of atmosphere are unavoidable in this most unusual of sports years. The grounds at Pimlico will be largely empty, with only small clusters of ownership connections on hand to cheer for the Preakness entrants. With no infield party roiling in the middle of it all, this will be a television event rather than the Baltimore bacchanal we’ve all come to expect.
The absence of a crowd will cause an economic hit, with few patrons traveling from out of town and no one on hand to bet the races live. Handle for Derby day was down 48% from 2019, providing a glimpse of what the Maryland Jockey Club might expect.
We’ve seen from the Belmont Stakes and the Derby that these classics still come across well on NBC’s broadcast after the eerie silences of the pre-race set-up. Those who love the sport have generally agreed it’s better to have the Triple Crown in some form than not at all.
The differences will be unavoidable, but the Preakness will go on.
145TH PREAKNESS STAKES
At Pimlico Race Course
Next Saturday, 6:45 p.m.
TV: Chs. 11, 4 (coverage begins at 5 p.m.)