When American Pharoah won the Triple Crown nearly 5½ years ago, the most vivid memory I kept was being in the shaking press box at Belmont Park and offering a silent prayer to my father just after the end of the race. My dad did, after all, lose a bet to me when Secretariat won the 1973 Belmont.
The second most vivid memory was of the antediluvian storm that descended on Baltimore before Pharoah won the Preakness. As the heavens opened, I realized that my pick in the race – the big, singled-geared Dortmund – had no shot. So I canceled my bet and, for the only time that I have attended a U.S. classic, I had no action on the race.
That was a 120-word way of saying that sometimes there are more factors in betting a race than distilling past performances. Such is the case with the 145th Preakness Stakes on Saturday at 5:36 p.m. EDT at Pimlico.
In this case the tote board will dictate my strategy, maybe more than any recent Triple Crown race.
Authentic (9-5 morning line, plus 175 best Las Vegas price) looked the part of the best horse in the division by winning last month in the Kentucky Derby. Belmont Stakes winner and Derby runner-up Tiz The Law is being prepared for the Breeders’ Cup Classic next month, so Authentic’s biggest threat for the Preakness and for champion 3-year-old will not be there.
“He’s got a chance to prove he’s the best horse,” Authentic’s trainer Bob Baffert said. “We’re not under the radar now. He’s a target.”
That is part of the reason why Authentic is not automatic to win the Preakness, and it is all the more reason to examine Art Collector (5-2, plus 260) and Thousand Words (6-1, plus 710).
Technically they are new shooters, but they would have raced in the Derby. Trainer Tommy Drury said that Art Collector missed only three days of training after grabbing a quarter the week of the race. Baffert said that Thousand Words was perfectly healthy despite his paddock fall at Churchill Downs; the rulebook forced him to be scratched.
Since he won the Blue Grass Stakes and the Ellis Park Derby, and since is the only horse in Saturday’s race that is undefeated this year, and since he was sired by 2006 Preakness winner Bernardini, and because he is not the favorite, and just because … , Art Collector is the wise-guy play this week. It is hard to remember hearing such a consensus of sharp opinion for a big, competitive race than there has been about this colt that less than three months ago had yet to set foot in a stakes race.
“One of my favorite things about this horse is he seems like he’s got a little stop and go to him,” Drury said. “You can kind of use him but then get him to shut back off if you need to. Sometimes in these races like this, that can be very beneficial.”
Unlike Authentic and Swiss Skydiver, early speed is not necessary for Thousand Words to deliver. True, he led the whole way in his last race, the Shared Belief Stakes two months ago at Del Mar. But he faced only three other horses. In fact, the biggest field he ever saw was in his victorious debut against seven rivals last fall. He is a Baffert, so why should he not benefit from the training of a Hall of Famer who shares the record with seven Preakness victories?
“He was very willing, which is very good,” Baffert said of recent mornings for Thousand Words. “You want to see a horse that is very willing.”
Florent Géroux, who becomes Thousand Words’s fourth jockey in as many races, is one noteworthy change for the Preakness. So is the addition of cheater blinkers, which seemed to energize the colt sired by Pioneerof The Nile.
“We should have always worked him in blinkers,” Baffert said. “That might have had something to do with it.”
Blinkers often mean that a horse is meant to challenge for the early lead. If that is so Saturday, it will be a crowded first turn what with Authentic, Art Collector, the filly and Kentucky Oaks runner-up Swiss Skydiver (6-1, plus 725), eighth-place Derby horse Ny Traffic (15-1, 16-1) and maybe Pneumatic (20-1, 20-1) prone to enjoy pacesetting.
What happens then if all that early speed breaks down? Bettors might want to put a first-run closer and a deep finisher on their tickets. Mine will include recent Pegasus Stakes victor Pneumatic and fifth-place Derby finisher Max Player (15-1, 15-1), both trained by two-time Preakness winner Steve Asmussen.
But the class of the race belongs to Authentic. And then Art Collector. And then Thousand Words. There really is not anything beyond them. Sorry, Swiss Skydiver fans. I do not believe she can keep up with these boys.
I want to key Art Collector, but the tote board will be my guide. The easy play would be to box him, Authentic, Thousand Words, Pneumatic and Max Player on exacta and trifecta tickets. The harder move will be to see which of the first three carries value and maybe looks best in the paddock – and hopefully does not turn the saddling into a gymnastics event.
Racing notes and opinions?
* The best racing of the weekend may be Saturday at Keeneland, where three Grade 1 races are on offer. Chad Brown’s Newspaperofrecord (8-5) is the lone speed on the turf and a worthy morning-line favorite in the First Lady at 4:51 p.m. EDT, so she is the obvious play. Brad Cox’s Tapit baby Elusive Quality (2-1) is one of maybe five speed horses at 5:24 p.m. EDT in the Breeders’ Futurity, so I like Upstriker (8-1) to get first run and hunt down the frontrunners. Halladay (5-2) is a lukewarm favorite at 5:57 p.m. EDT in the Shadwell Turf Mile, but I am looking at Born Great (20-1) to step up from an impressive allowance win to score the upset.
* Because it will not stop raining in Paris, the Aidan O’Brien-trained filly Love was taken out of this weekend’s Group 1 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. The good news in America is that she will be pointed to the Breeders’ Cup next month at Keeneland against the Godolphin standout Ghaiyyath. Scott Burton of Racing Post did not mince words when he said, “The notion that the Breeders’ Cup Turf is going to feature Ghaiyyath and Love arguably will make it the best 1½-mile race run anywhere in the world this year on turf.”
* Arc analysis: Love was the second betting choice in European futures before she was withdrawn. Trying for an unprecedented third victory in the race, Enable (11-8) will soak in most of the public money now for Sunday’s race at 10:05 a.m. EDT. She ran off to a seven-length win against an overmatched field last month in the Grade 3 September Stakes at Kempton, England. That all-weather race was her final prep before winning the 2018 Arc. But deepening ground cost her last year in her second-place Arc finish to Waldgeist. It says here it will cost her again. My long-shot gamble is on Persian King (25-1), a 4-year-old colt trained by André Fabre, whose Arc-record eight victories included last year’s. The field will have to come back to Persian King, and he has never gone as long as 1½ miles. But he won on the same turf at ParisLongchamp last year in the French guineas, so the price looks right to take a chance on him.
* This marks the first time since 2006 that I have not been in Paris for the Arc. Or in Baltimore for the Preakness. That I was not at the Kentucky Derby or the Belmont Stakes. And that I will not be at the Breeders’ Cup. Someone wake me when this nightmare is over.
Ron Flatter’s weekly racing column is available every Friday morning at VSiN.com with additional coverage of the Preakness Stakes on the same website this weekend. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. On the latest episode, Hall of Fame jockey John Velázquez discusses his ride on Kentucky Derby winner Authentic in the Preakness, Eclipse Award-winning turf writer John Scheinmann offers local knowledge of the race from Baltimore, and Racing Post’s Scott Burton is in Paris to preview the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. A special handicappers’ pop-up episode is also posted featuring Vinny Magliulo, Johnny Avello, Chris Andrews and Duane Colucci analyzing every horse in the Preakness. Both episodes of the RFRP are available via Apple, Google, iHeart, Spotify, Stitcher and at VSiN.com/podcasts and are sponsored by 1/ST BET.