With much of the focus leading up to Saturday's Preakness on the "big three" horses — American Pharoah, Firing Line and Dortmund — trainers of the other contenders are quick to acknowledge their quality without laying the Black-Eyed Susan wreath on one of them before the race even begins.
"One of the things that compromises everybody in this race, other than maybe two horses, is that the style of five or six of these horses is really the same," said D. Wayne Lukas, trainer for Mr. Z. "You could see all of these horses coming together, and it might get into a trip race — who gets the best trip? — and it might get into a jockey's race — who's smart enough to know we're going too fast, too slow, or where will I be? That could very well shake out here."
Those three horses ran first, second and third in the Kentucky Derby two weeks ago, and are heavy favorites to replicate that result Saturday, if not in the same order.
But American Pharoah and Dortmund, both trained by Bob Baffert, drew the two inside post positions for the eight-horse field Saturday. That means they'll have to start quickly not to get caught on the inside rail by the first turn.
Many, including Baffert, expect Mr. Z to push the pace early.
"We're the quickest horse if we want to be," Lukas said.
Mr. Z ran the Kentucky Derby and Arkansas Derby under the ownership of Zayat Stables, which also owns American Pharoah. Lukas indicated he might run differently now that he engineered a Wednesday sale of Mr. Z to Calumet Farm.
Baffert said Thursday that the break was "like the Indy 500," in that you can't spin out.
Jose Corrales, owner and trainer for the Laurel Park-based Bodhisattva, said he knew Baffert's horses would need to get away from the rail early.
"If you don't break quick enough, they're going to get trapped," Corrales said.
Many believe the two Baffert horses have the speed to stay out of trouble at the first turn. Firing Line, who ran second in the Derby, has the outside post position and can survey the situation, which is an advantage to jockey Gary Stevens.
But Danzig Moon trainer Mark Casse said he expects his horse to sit back early, then make a run late. Bodhisattva won the Federico Tesio Stakes a month ago at Pimlico with a strong stretch run. Tale of Verve trainer Dallas Stewart said his horse can finish well, too, if he gets a good trip.
"It's a horse race," Stewart said. "Every race is different. You watch nine or 10 races, anything can happen. We don't wish that. We just know racing every day, you see things happen.
"American Pharoah, he's got the one hole, so he's got to have a good trip, but he's the fastest horse in the race," Stewart said. "If a couple things happen, he gets in trouble or doesn't show up to run hard, you have a shot."
The small field can be partially blamed for that. Baffert trains one quarter of the eight-horse field, and while Firing Line trainer Simon Callaghan has given daily briefings, he has been reserved this week.
Lukas has held court each day, but the rest of the field's trainers have stayed under the radar.
Baffert, a five-time Preakness winner, joked that he didn't get the attention of last year's Derby-winning trainer, California Chrome's Art Sherman.
"I'm sort of feeling hurt," Baffert said. "Art Sherman got a lot more action than I did."
Pletcher's Commissioner wins Pimlico Special
Todd Pletcher doesn't have a horse running in Saturday's Preakness and has never been to the winner's circle at Pimlico Race Course's main event. Yet the celebrated trainer thoroughly enjoyed seeing 4-year-old Commissioner, a 5-2 favorite, win the $300,000 Pimlico Special on Friday.
"This was awesome," Pletcher said of Commissioner, which won by 2 1/2 lengths over Page McKenney and paid $4.60 to win the 1 3/16-mile race in 1 minute, 56.09 seconds. "I loved the position he was able to get into. Once he gets into that rhythm, you can keep on cruising."
Said winning jockey Javier Castellano, who also won the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes on 15-1 long-shot Keen Pauline: "He was very strong today. I was able to tuck in around the first turn and he was just galloping along. I didn't ask him [for more] until we turned for home. The more distance, the better for him."
Trained by Hall of Fame Maryland trainer King T. Leatherbury, Ben's Cat won his fourth McKay Turf Sprint in five years, and third in three tries, marking the 9-year-old's 29th win in 47 career starts.
Jockey Julian Pimentel rode Ben's Cat hard down the stretch, and he edged out Bold Thunder by a neck.
"I thought that we would win, but I wasn't so sure at the three-sixteenths pole," Leatherbury said. "But we got there just in time. Just like a Hollywood script would write it."
Stopchargingmaria wins again
The 2014 Black Eyed Susan winner, Stopchargingmaria, went off as the favorite in the Allaire duPont Distaff Stakes and charged ahead in the final turn for a comfortable four-lengths victory over Yahilwa.
It was the Pletcher filly's second win in as many tries on Pimlico.