How one decision changed the 2021 Preakness

By Ron Flatter  (VSiN.com) 

Mandaloun
After finishing second in the Kentucky Derby, Mandaloun will not be sent to Pimlico to face Derby winner Medina Spirit in the Preakness Stakes. (Ron Flatter photo)

Louisville, Ky.

Before taking the first crack at unlocking how to make any money on this year’s Bob Baffert Invitational, a.k.a. Preakness 146, a peek behind the racing journalists’ curtain is in order. It reveals a little more than a half-day in the arc of the Triple Crown.

Around 7 a.m. Thursday, I drove into the stable area at Churchill Downs. Knowing that trainer Brad Cox would be on a media conference call six hours later, I was hoping he would tell me first whether Mandaloun and Caddo River would be in the Preakness. Upon my arrival only barn goat Mister Man was there to greet me.

By 8 a.m. he – Cox, not Mister Man – said he had no news. He said if anything changed he would let me know later.

“The conference call is at 1:00, right?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said.

“Will you know something at 12:00?”

“Maybe.”

I texted at 10:30 and called at noon. No answer. Not even from Mister Man.

At 1:00 the conference call began with Baffert as the opening act. He did about 25 minutes on Medina Spirit winning the Kentucky Derby and how owner Gary West talked him out of holding out Concert Tour until the Preakness and how last weekend’s Derby victory did not feel like the American Pharoah and Justify victories. Pretty soon it was over.

Then Cox came on, and emcee Jim Gluckson’s second question about Derby runner-up Mandaloun was the first tug on the thread that was about to unravel.

“What are your plans as far as his activity, his exercise over the next few days?”

“He’ll return to galloping tomorrow,” Cox said. “We have made the decision in the last hour to bypass the Preakness.”

Cox said more, but they were drowned out by men sporting fedoras and rumpled suits racing to phone booths.

Then Gluckson said, “Oh, all right. Let’s talk about Caddo River for a second. He breezed four furlongs on Monday over a sloppy track at Churchill. What is your progress report on him?”

“Moving well,” Cox said. “We just don’t feel like we’ve done enough with him to pursue the Preakness.”

Cox said some more, but he could not be heard over the men in fedoras and rumpled suits screaming “City desk, Get me rewrite” into the phones with the curly cords attached.

Now it was about 1:30 p.m. The conference call to preview the Preakness had degenerated into a red carpet with no more “A”-listers. The race was not looking much better. In just 6½ hours the second jewel of the Triple Crown had gone from a decent betting race with a worthy pacesetter and legitimate contenders to a game of “Name That Baffert.”

Quick. Get Bob back on the phone for reaction. Oh, never mind.

Just when it seemed the 2020 Triple Crown would be the outlier that stood as the nadir in a century of American classics. Then comes 2021, when no fewer than 11 sets of connections turned down invitations to have their healthy horses race in the Kentucky Derby. As if that was not ignominious enough, the Preakness is lining up like the 1999 dinner party on “Frasier.”

“We have a third-rate caterer with a record, two lushes, a couple who think we’re both nutcases, an Argentine wild child and Roz. Dinner is served.”

Oh, don’t forget the Baffert colts. And maybe even Mister Man.

It is not unusual for the Preakness to attract few also-rans from the Kentucky Derby. But not this few. So far it looks like sixth-place Midnight Bourbon and seventh-place Keepmeinmind will be the only ones to retest Medina Spirit. This is only the second time since Big Brown scared almost everyone away in 2008 that there have been only three Derby horses at Pimlico. The last time was 2016, when Exaggerator avenged his loss to Nyquist, and the Japanese colt Lani finished out of the money, and every other horse had that new-shooter smell.

Cox said Thursday his decision was based on the grueling nature of the Triple Crown trail. “I just am not a big fan of running back in two weeks,” he said. “If you win the Kentucky Derby, and the horse comes out of it in good order, I think you march forward. But without there being an opportunity at a Triple Crown, I just feel like it’s best for the horses to target some other races later on in the year.”

Yes, Cox could have said something nearly a week ago, back when he had already ruled out beaten Derby favorite Essential Quality. Remember, though, owners have their input, too, and they are not always on everyone else’s timetable.

The bigger loss from the Preakness was not Essential Quality or Mandaloun but, instead, Caddo River. Look at what happened without him at Churchill Downs. The absence of his early speed from the Derby meant Medina Spirit could go uncontested to the lead. Now his absence from the Preakness means it might be just the two Baffert horses that will set the pace at Pimlico. Good luck sorting that out.

“I don’t really play favorites,” Baffert said. “Whatever happens happens. We deal with it even on a weekly basis here in California, I’ll have two or three horses in (the same race). It’s one of those things where it’s the jockeys. They’re trying to win. I sort of stay out of their way.”

Baffert staying out of the way? Yeah, right. Does anyone believe that is the way to win 17 classics? Whether the silver-haired, shades-wearing boss is hands-on or not, John Velázquez will again ride Medina Spirit, and Mike Smith will take over for Joel Rosario on Concert Tour, who last out was an indifferent third in the Arkansas Derby.

The jockey dominos mean Midnight Bourbon, who had taken Smith on a rough Derby ride (and vice-versa?), will be taken over by reigning three-time Eclipse Award winner Irad Ortiz Jr., who last weekend was on ninth-place Known Agenda.

There is always the temptation to see a vulnerable Derby winner like Medina Spirit and look away to a new shooter. That is even though non-Derby horses have won the Preakness only five times in the last 37 runnings. Two of those, including Swiss Skydiver last year, were fillies coming out of the Kentucky Oaks.

Even if they have not had the luxury of more than two weeks between races, Derby horses are supposed to be better than new shooters, because they were good enough to get into America’s greatest race. But that is not the be-all, end-all this year. Go back to that line about regrets being sent to Churchill Downs on behalf of 11 fit horses.

Now look at the three Derby horses coming into this Preakness.

* Medina Spirit has lost as many races as he has won. Of Baffert’s seven rose gatherers at Churchill Downs, the only one that lost more was Real Quiet, who was defeated 10 times before he finished first in the Derby. That was in 1998, back when racehorses actually raced a lot.

* Midnight Bourbon was the third choice after the Cox defections in foreign futures for the Preakness. Other than his maiden breaker last summer at Ellis Park, his only victory was in the Grade 3 Lecomte four months ago at Fair Grounds. He is still eligible to compete in races for non-winners of more than two.

* Keepmeinmind is only 1-for-7 and, as a 3-year-old, has lost his last three starts by an average of nearly 11 lengths. Remember those 11 defections earlier? Keepmeinmind needed nine of them to get into the Derby.

This is not to say that the Preakness will boil down to Medina Spirit vs. Concert Tour vs. Midnight Bourbon. The early lead may come down to them. If all of them are involved in trying to set the pace, then it could fall to a new shooter to pick up the pieces late.

Rombauer could be one such horse. His owners John and Diane Fradkin have actually been pointing for the Preakness ever since February, when their homebred Twirling Candy colt won the El Camino Real Derby on the synthetic dirt of Golden Gate Fields in northern California.

“By winning the El Camino Real the horse got a free starting entry fee into the Preakness,” trainer Mike McCarthy said on the Ron Flatter Racing Pod. “These things can get a little expensive to run in, so it just made a little bit more sense to go ahead and wait until the Preakness. We just thought we’d go into the second leg of the Triple Crown with some fresher legs.”

Rombauer will have had 1½ months between races by the time they line up at Pimlico. His last start resulted in a third-place finish to Essential Quality and Highly Motivated in the Blue Grass Stakes. Those are two horses that will not be around in the Preakness to kick him around.

“How we ended up at the Blue Grass was kind of a last-minute decision,” McCarthy said. “He certainly didn’t disgrace himself that day.”

Now he has a chance to spoil Baffert’s bid to stay alive for a record third Triple Crown triumph. Long odds and betting value are sure to follow. Before the defections of the Cox horses, Rombauer was best-priced at 14-1 in overseas Preakness futures.

Rombauer is bound to be the wise-guy play against the Bafferts, who will attract the “fool me once” money. Medina Spirit was widely ignored even though Baffert was going for his record seventh victory in the Derby. Now he is trying to break his tie with Wyndham Walden, whose seven Preakness victories came before the airplane. Baffert’s came before COVID.

One would think that by post time, the odds for both of the Bafferts may be shorter than 2-1, meaning a bet on both to win would still lose money. Oh, to be a fly on the wall at whatever Baltimore restaurant that Baffert chooses to discuss strategy the way he did with Velázquez at the Jeff Ruby Steaks in downtown Louisville. (I was actually a fly at the bar one of those nights.)

“I really never share my strategy or anything, but I know what they each like,” Baffert said. “When the time comes, we’ll just sit down and strategize something. There’s things about each horse – what they want to do, what they don’t want to do. I’ll sit down and talk to the riders, and they’ve got to figure it out.”

And you know what? Baffert will figure it out, too. And we will all be the last to know.

Maybe we should set up a conference call with Baffert for next Friday night.

Racing notes and opinions

While foreign bookmakers are posting online futures for the Preakness, do not expect them to be replicated domestically until next week – after the race is drawn Monday. There is just not enough money to make it worth the while of Circa and William Hill to devote the time and manpower to write futures for such a brief betting window. One Nevada operator, however, did open Medina Spirit at plus-375 to win the Preakness. Station Casinos also made him minus-550 to fail.

Yes, the full wagering menu will be available in Las Vegas for the Preakness and, for that matter, all Pimlico cards Friday and Saturday next week and for the entire spring meet. Right now The Stronach Group and the Nevada Pari-Mutuel Association are getting along while Churchill Downs Inc. and the NPMA are not, so racebook bettors will be allowed do dive into the deep end of the pari-mutuel pools next weekend.

The traditional prep for next month’s Belmont Stakes is Saturday’s Grade 3 Peter Pan Stakes. The one-turn, nine-furlong race bears little resemblance to the two turns and 1½ miles of the Belmont, but it is still designated as a glorified prep. At least now, though, the assigned weight is 123 pounds on the way to next month’s 126. Until two years ago it was mostly an inexplicably light 116. Drawn widest in the field of six, trainer Chad Brown’s Withers winner Risk Taking (7-5) is the morning-line favorite coming off a seventh-place finish as the favorite in the Wood Memorial. Instead, the pick here is Nova Rags (5-2), a stakes winner for Bill Mott that was a bumpy fourth in the Florida Derby. He had a pair of bullet works at Payson Park in Florida that may lead to added interest at the betting window. The Peter Pan is posted for Saturday at 5:12 p.m. EDT on what is forecast to be a showery day. If it gets really wet, it is worth noting that Promise Keeper (7-2) broke his maiden by five lengths in the slop Feb. 6 at Gulfstream Park.

Ron Flatter’s regularly scheduled racing column is available every Friday morning at VSiN.com. It is posted more frequently during coverage of big events. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. This week between the classics, the Triple Crown is still the main topic of conversation on the RFRP. Steve Kornacki of NBC News talks about his successful pick of Medina Spirit in the Kentucky Derby, and he looks forward to next week’s Preakness. So does trainer Mike McCarthy, who sends his colt Rombauer to race at Pimlico. South Point’s Chris Andrews handicaps weekend races at Belmont Park. Every episode of the RFRP is available via free subscription at iHeart, Apple, Google, Spotify, Stitcher and at VSiN.com/podcasts. It is sponsored by 1/ST BET.

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