Will ‘The Weakness’ Beget Changes?

Homestretch of 2022 Preakness Stakes

For the first time since Triple Crown races started being held on their current schedule — with two weeks between the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, and three weeks between the Preakness and Belmont — we have a Preakness in which just one horse entered in the Derby (the winner, Mage) is turning around and running this Saturday in Baltimore. 

This has led some in the horse racing community to call for more time between each race, while purists have been quick to remind everyone that the Triple Crown is supposed to be rigorous and that any tweak in timing would devalue the accomplishment of winning all three.

To this end, US Bets‘ horse racing bureau — Matt Rybaltowski and Mike Seely — take up this debate from (somewhat) opposing sides and offer a handful of handicapping tips for horse bettors intent on wagering on a middle jewel that might as well be called “the Weakness” this year.

Mike Seely: There’s just one Derby horse — the winner, mind you — running it back in the Preakness this year. Given this unfortunate milestone, I think we’re actually at a point where we have to acknowledge that the sport of thoroughbred racing is wobblier and wimpier than it’s ever been, and that the Triple Crown schedule needs to be changed to accommodate that reality.

In other words, horse racing is officially in its “load management” era, to the point where it wouldn’t surprise me to see Kawhi Leonard buy an elite horse, enter it in this summer’s Pacific Classic at Del Mar, and then scratch 10 minutes before the race, just because he can.

Matt Rybaltowski: While the number of Derby horses in the Preakness has hit a nadir, the figure has actually been trending downward for quite awhile. 

When Big Brown romped in the second leg of the 2008 Triple Crown, only one horse, 17th-place finisher Gayego, joined him from the Derby. Big Brown won the Kentucky Derby by 4 ¾ emphatic lengths; Eight Belles, the second-place finisher, tragically broke down just past the finish line. 

Trainers from the also-rans have little incentive to take a shot on short rest. Country House won the Derby in 2019, but he missed the Preakness when trainer Bill Mott detected a virus just before the race. In fact, none of the top four Derby horses to cross the wire that year entered the Preakness, marking the first such occurrence since 1951. 

The last three Preakness winners did not compete in the Derby, as well as four of the last six. When Cloud Computing won the Preakness in 2017, he became only the fourth horse in the prior 34 years to wear Black Eyed Susan’s blanket without running in the Kentucky Derby.

The real shame of it is that the Preakness has featured some of the most thrilling finishes in Triple Crown history. Former announcer Dave Johnson has described the stretch duel in the 1989 Preakness between Sunday Silence and Easy Goer as the best race he’s ever witnessed. Eight years later, Silver Charm kept his Triple Crown hopes alive by beating Free House and Captain Bodgit by a head. Street Sense had his dreams shattered in 2007 when Curlin defeated him by a nostril.

The Stronach Group (aka 1/ST), which owns Pimlico Race Course, can sweeten the pot. Why not increase the total purse to $3 million, the same amount Churchill Downs distributes in winnings for the Kentucky Derby? When The Stronach Group explored selling some of its assets in 2021, its portfolio received a valuation of around $1.5 billion, according to Bloomberg. Owners on the fence may be tempted by steeper payouts.

MS: Jeez Louise, you just reminded me of the lamest-named horse ever to win a Triple Crown race: Cloud Computing. Was that “animal” a product of Amazon, Microsoft, and Meta breeding a virtual horse and somehow getting Elon Musk’s spaceship to transport it back to Earth? I’m guessing yes.

1/ST — also a lousy name for anything, be it a racehorse or a company. Matty, if Frank Stronach’s winged horse outside of Gulfstream, which is the size of the Empire State Building, entered this puny Preakness field, would it win? Or would it be difficult to transport an equine edifice of that size in a private jet?

MR: Stronach’s winged horse, aptly named Pegasus, has a wicked turn of foot. I should know — I rode it to victory in a $10,000 Maiden Special Weight nine years ago. The statue, Pegasus and Dragon, is the third-largest in the U.S. behind the Birth of the New World in Puerto Rico and the Statue of Liberty. It might fit in Frank’s private jet. Let’s give it odds of 8/1.

Speaking of Cloud Computing, the new shooters in the Preakness have put forth some brisk times in recent years. When Swiss Skydiver held off Authentic in 2020, she finished in 1:53.28, less than three-tenths of a second off Secretariat’s stakes record. A year later, Rombauer won in 1:53.62, producing the fourth-fastest time in Preakness history.

It raises the question: Will mega-trainers with deep barns continue to roll out new shooters for the final two legs of the Triple Crown? An extra week or two of rest may make the difference at Pimlico. 

First Mission, the 5/2 second choice, recorded a 98 Beyer speed figure in winning the Grade 3 Lexington Stakes, and trainer Brad Cox had the flexibility to rest his four Derby entries and bring First Mission off the bench. Seven-time Preakness winner Bob Baffert returns to the Triple Crown with National Treasure, having entered the Derby trail with no fewer than seven candidates talented enough to run in the Preakness.

MS: Let’s go back to that stretch duel in ’89. The trainer of the horse who got the short end of that photo finish was the great Shug McGaughey, who has an intriguing 15/1 morning-line shooter in this year’s race in Perform, winner of April’s Federico Tesio at Laurel Park. 

Matt, you know I’m a fan of young horses who show steady Beyer improvement, and Perform — supplemented into the race for $150,000 by his owners — is one of them. So was Two Phil’s, who nearly held off Mage in the stretch in Louisville. Now, Perform will have to make a monstrous leap to win on Saturday, but he seems like a different horse in two-turn races and people need to remember that these colts are still babies, relatively speaking.

The fresh shooters from the mega-trainers that you just mentioned are the biggest threats to halt Mage’s Triple Crown quest, but I’ll be looking for value like I did in the Derby with Two Phil’s and playing Perform across the board.

MR: With two wins in seven lifetime starts, Perform has never run a Beyer above 85 and will be making his graded stakes debut. In an ordinary year, he should be at least 30/1 on the morning line.

There is little value in playing Mage on top with a longshot in an exacta. I’ll be rooting for Mage, but I’m not betting much on him Saturday. I might single him in a Pick 3 or in a superfecta key with First Mission to place. I’m more interested in how Mage will fare in the Belmont.

It is good for racing to have a Triple Crown on the line at Belmont every year. If Mage wins Saturday, the sport’s elite trainers should challenge him at Belmont Park with the best prospects in their barns. Remember when Jerry Bailey pressed Smarty Jones on the Belmont backstretch in 2004? It was as if Bailey and Alex Solis teamed up against Smarty to weaken him for Birdstone’s stretch win.

Winning the Triple Crown should be tough. The USGA doesn’t trim the knee-high rough in the U.S. Open and the Tour de France doesn’t eliminate steep climbs in the Alps when riders complain about the heat. Of these five Derby contenders — Forte, Two Phil’s, Tapit Trice, Angel of Empire, and Confidence Game — I’d like to see two or three take on Mage in the Belmont. But Mage, who produced a 105 Beyer in the Derby, needs to win the Preakness first.

Photo: Paul Morigi/Getty Images for 1/ST

Author: Ryan Gonzales