The 2015 Preakness field of 8 horses is set and all are trying to complete for the second leg of the Triple Crown. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
One of the greatest trainers in Preakness history, six-time winner D. Wayne Lukas, created a bit of intrigue Wednesday by unexpectedly entering Mr. Z in Saturday's race.
Mr. Z's owner, Ahmed Zayat, had said he did not want to bring the horse back on two weeks' rest after a 13th-place finish in the Kentucky Derby. But Lukas was not to be denied.
He helped facilitate a mid-week sale of the horse from Zayat to Kentucky's Calumet Farm and entered the horse into the Preakness, where he will start third from the rail.
Lukas is known for entering big races with horses dismissed by the experts. And he has won more than his share under such circumstances. He noted at least two of his Preakness winners, Oxbow in 2013 and Timber Country in 1995, were widely dismissed.
"That's why we run them," Lukas said. "If you just mailed it in, there wouldn't be any excitement."
He said Derby winner American Pharoah — also owned by Zayat — is the best horse in the field, but added that bad luck has felled plenty of favorites over the years.
The sale talks began with what Lukas described as a casual conversation between him and Calumet owner Brad Kelley. He told Kelley, for whom he frequently trains, that he would run Mr. Z in the Preakness if he owned him. But he said Zayat would not enter the horse.
From there, Lukas served as a middle man between Zayat and Kelley.
The 80-year-old trainer said Mr. Z looked terrific in his first work over the track at Pimlico.
"I galloped him over it this morning, and I thought he handled it really well," Lukas said.
Two years ago, Gary Stevens came to Pimlico Race Course for the Preakness having as much to prove at age 50 as the horse, 15-1 shot Oxbow, he was riding.
Stevens, who didn't ride in the Preakness last year after Candy Boy finished 13th in the Kentucky Derby, is back. Neither the now 52-year-old jockey nor 4-1 shot Firing Line is looking for redemption in Saturday's race.
Narrowly losing out to favorite American Pharoah and jockey Victor Espinoza two weeks ago in the Kentucky Derby, Firing Line and Stevens are looking to finish what they started at Churchill Downs.
Stevens said that he and Firing Line "were both full out" by the end of their Derby ride, when they were overtaken at the one-eighth pole and wound up getting beaten by a length.
"Cardio-wise he wasn't tired at all after the race, but running 3 ½ furlongs on the left lead, you've got to think he was getting a little leg-weary with me," Stevens said Wednesday. "I know there was no quit in him."
The odds have dropped on Firing Line from 9-1 at the Kentucky Derby to 4-1 at the Preakness, in part because of what transpired under the twin spires and partly because Stevens has won the Preakness three times.
"I feel at home here in Baltimore. This is one of my favorite race tracks and one of my favorite races to ride," Stevens said. "Just looking forward to the weekend. The experience is not going to hurt me."
Though Firing Line came into Lexington after a six-week break and was, according to Stevens "the freshest horse," the Hall of Fame rider said he believes the horse is still fresher than either American Pharoah or Dortmund, the third-place finisher in the Derby.
"I actually expect him to improve," Stevens said of Firing Line.
Tale of Verve was assigned the longest morning line odds (30-1) by Keith Feustle, but trainer Dallas Stewart laughed off the slight after Wednesday's draw.
"I thought Lukas should have been 30-1," he joked. "We've got a tall order here, but I think we've got a really nice horse. He can definitely go the distance. How fast he can run? That's yet to be seen. He's a nice horse. I think he'll be finishing good, and I hope he gets a clean trip. We'll see what happens."
Tale of Verve, who entered in the Derby but was not drawn into the race, will start from the No. 5 spot Saturday. Stewart said jockey Joel Rosario knows his horse will sit back and make a single run, though the small eight-horse field doesn't make that any easier.
"Hey, you've got a three-horse race, somebody can still get in trouble," Stewart said. "That's yet to be seen."