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Five storylines to watch for the 2021 Preakness Stakes

As the world returns, haltingly, to familiar rituals, the 146th Preakness Stakes will do the same.

With the crowd at Pimlico Race Course limited to 10,000 and no raucous infield party, this will not be the Preakness we grew up with, but it will be a step in that direction, with a familiar May date, some patrons in the stands and a Triple Crown bid hanging in the balance.

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If television ratings and betting totals from the Kentucky Derby are any indication, racing fans were eager to have the Triple Crown back in its familiar place on the calendar. Medina Spirit added to that excitement with his surprise wire-to-wire victory for trainer Bob Baffert.

In the Preakness, this “tough little horse,” as Baffert calls him, will face the usual blend of Derby rematches and fresh challengers. As we weigh Medina Spirit’s chances at taking the second leg of a potential Triple Crown, here are five stories to watch:

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John Velazquez riding Medina Spirit crosses the finish line to win the 147th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, Saturday, May 1, 2021, in Louisville, Ky. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
John Velazquez riding Medina Spirit crosses the finish line to win the 147th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, Saturday, May 1, 2021, in Louisville, Ky. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson) (Jeff Roberson/AP)

Can Medina Spirit stay ahead of that clock ticking toward midnight?

Baffert wasted little time invoking Cinderella as he described his own surprise with Medina Spirit’s performance in the Derby. He admired the colt’s grit and consistency, but a runner-up finish in the Santa Anita Derby left him wondering if Medina Spirit faced an insurmountable talent deficit against the best in this year’s 3-year-old class. Baffert had already pulled two more hyped contenders, Life is Good and Concert Tour, off the Derby trail, and some skeptics viewed his lone remaining entry as the runt of the litter.

Well, that runt refused to be passed after jockey John Velazquez let him run to the lead at Churchill Downs. Mandaloun, Hot Rod Charlie and Essential Quality took their shots, but he would not yield.

We know Medina Spirit is a good bet to give his best again at Pimlico Race Course. The former $1,000 yearling has run five times this year and has not finished worse than second. Baffert-trained horses have tended to hold their form from Derby to Preakness; of his previous six Derby champions, five won at Pimlico and the other finished second.

That said, the pace scenario will be fascinating. Can Velazquez again control the race from the lead? Medina Spirit didn’t have it easy in the Derby; Mandaloun ran with him the whole way. But no one pushed him to run uncomfortable fractions early, perhaps because no one viewed him as the greatest threat in the field. That will not be the case in the Preakness, where he’ll be an obvious target.

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With so many Derby runners skipping the race, is this a weak field?

When trainer Brad Cox pulled Mandaloun from Preakness consideration Thursday, he left the field bereft of all three horses that pushed Medina Spirit down the stretch at the Derby.

Cox had already said Derby favorite and fourth-place finisher Essential Quality would not run at Pimlico Race Course. Trainer Doug O’Neill had pulled third-place finisher Hot Rod Charlie from consideration. So Mandaloun, who stalked Medina Spirit stride for stride before falling a half-length short, stood out as the most exciting rematch possibility. Instead, Cox said he’ll prepare the Derby runner-up for other Grade 1 stakes late in the year.

Perhaps that’s what’s best for his horse, but it sure is a bummer for a Preakness field that’s now light on Derby carry-overs.

Sixth-place finisher Midnight Bourbon is the top contender lining up to take another shot at Medina Spirit. He started awkwardly in the Derby but hung on to finish sixth for trainer Steve Asmussen, who’s won the Preakness twice in his Hall of Fame career. Midnight Bourbon came out of the Derby full of energy despite his inefficient trip. He had never finished worse than third in seven previous career starts; like Medina Spirit, he can be counted on to battle. He’ll be ridden by the top jockey in the sport, Irad Ortiz Jr., after Mike Smith decided to ride Concert Tour instead.

Keepmeinmind, meanwhile, came flying from the back of the pack to finish seventh in the Derby. No horse was running faster at the end, so it’s fair to wonder if a hotter pace early in the Preakness could position the Robertino Diodoro-trained colt for an upset.

That’s it for Derby contenders, leaving us with a projected nine- or 10-horse field reminiscent of the one that challenged Justify in 2018.

Pimlico barker background

Will Medina Spirit’s stiffest challenge come from stablemate Concert Tour?

Before his flat third-place finish in the Arkansas Derby, Concert Tour was viewed as a more serious Derby contender than Medina Spirit. He was inexperienced, with just three starts heading into his final Derby prep, but seemed poised for another big performance coming off his March 13 victory in the Rebel Stakes. His easy speed in that race reminded Baffert of 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah.

His effort in the Arkansas Derby was disappointing enough, however, that Baffert went back to the drawing board. “You get beat and you figure it out,” the Hall of Fame trainer said. “You learn more from your losses: what a horse likes, what he doesn’t like. Did I have him ready? I make notes and figure out what’s wrong.”

Owners Gary and Mary West did not feel confident bringing Concert Tour back for the Derby but saw enough improvement from his training at Churchill Downs that a Preakness run seemed prudent. He’ll enter the field as a fresh wild card. Is he the exciting contender from March or the disappointing also-ran from April?

“We really thought we had the goods there, and for some reason, he came up short,” Baffert said. “I kept working him like he was going to go to the Preakness. … So we’ll run in it and see if he’s as good as we think he is. Or maybe he’s not as good as we think he is, but we’ll give him a chance.”

Trainer Bob Baffert hands the winner's trophy to jockey John Velazquez after they victory with Medina Spirit in the 147th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, Saturday, May 1, 2021, in Louisville, Ky. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
Trainer Bob Baffert hands the winner's trophy to jockey John Velazquez after they victory with Medina Spirit in the 147th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, Saturday, May 1, 2021, in Louisville, Ky. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson) (Jeff Roberson/AP)

Can Bob Baffert and John Velazquez partner up for a Preakness win after they fell short in 2020?

As stunned as Baffert was by Medina Spirit’s big win, he was equally stunned last October when 2020 Derby champion Authentic could not pass Swiss Skydiver down the stretch at the Preakness.

He felt Authentic was training perfectly, and his confidence in the horse was validated by a subsequent win in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. At Pimlico, however, Velazquez could not get Authentic to the open running space he favored and could not chase down a battle-tested rival. He and Baffert will hope to avoid a similar tactical quagmire this time around.

The Preakness is one of the few major American races the 49-year-old Velazquez hasn’t won. He’s one of the country’s most consistent big-race riders, known for his coolheaded decision making.

Baffert, of course, is the face of the sport. With seven Preakness wins and 17 total wins in the Triple Crown series, he’s lapped his competitors. But the last few years have not been business as usual for him. Several of his high-profile horses, including 2018 Triple Crown winner Justify and the filly Gamine, have been flagged for medication violations. Baffert has successfully appealed penalties from some of those cases but has acknowledged the discomfort of having his name linked with the sport’s ongoing doping battle.

Socially distanced chairs are in place for many of the 10,000 race goers allowed to attend the 146th Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course on May 15.
Socially distanced chairs are in place for many of the 10,000 race goers allowed to attend the 146th Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course on May 15. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

How normal will this Preakness feel?

Well, it’s on the third Saturday in May. There will be fans. There will be a Triple Crown bid at play for the first time since 2018. So we’re ahead of last year.

Swiss Skydiver and Authentic gave us a terrific race in October, but with no one there to cheer them, the whole day felt strange. As Baffert said repeatedly, there was none of the usual Preakness buzz.

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The crowd this year will pale in comparison to the 131,256 from 2019. There will be no InfieldFest. We’ll see how the betting handle recovers from a 48-percent drop in 2020.

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On the bright side, the Derby attracted 14.5 million television viewers, up 54 percent from 2020, and generated $233 million in handle, up 85 percent from the previous year. With Medina Spirit and Baffert at the head of the field, Preakness organizers will hope to ride that positive wave.

146TH PREAKNESS STAKES

May 15, 6:45 p.m. post time

TV: Chs. 11, 4 (4:30 p.m.)

Triple Crown series: Belmont, June 5

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