There is no points system. There are a few forgettable qualifying preps. There is almost no notice for acceptances and the rejections. Yet with a smaller field and a cutback to a distance closer to the sweet spot for modern thoroughbred breeding, the middle child known as the Preakness Stakes maintains its place as the smartest of the three Triple Crown races.
Medina Spirit will be there trying to keep alive Bob Baffert’s bid to train an unprecedented third Triple Crown winner. But for the seventh time this century, the Kentucky Derby winner might not be the Baltimore favorite. That is because of another horse from the Baffert barn.
After former Derby futures favorite Life Is Good got hurt, and before he looked so bad finishing third in last month’s Arkansas Derby, Concert Tour was regarded as Baffert’s best healthy 3-year-old. Yes, Baffert is sending him to Pimlico to tangle with Medina Spirit on May 15.
One foreign site showed shorter futures odds for Medina Spirit (9-2) than Concert Tour (7-1) to open Preakness betting, but the public might beg to differ. So might Baffert, who bristled at the idea Medina Spirit was third best in his barn.
“I think it’s not fair,” he said Sunday at Churchill Downs. “Life Is Good, we saw what he could do. When he got hurt it was just a big blow, because he was a superior-type horse. Concert Tour, I’m still scratching my head about the Arkansas Derby. These horses are still developing. They’re really young horses. Everybody talks about first, second or third. (Medina Spirit) is the top horse in my barn.”
Even though he has a record seven Derby victories, Baffert knows they do not come easily, even if they seem to roll into his barn like rainwater. The same may be said of Preakness victories, for which he shares the record with seven. Throw out the anomalous running of the race last fall, and Baffert is 6-for-6 when presented with a springtime opportunity for a Derby-Preakness double.
One of those was War Emblem, the unlikely, single-geared winner of the 2002 Derby who two weeks later fended off Menacing Dennis in a speed duel at Pimlico to win the Preakness. War Emblem was 20-1 to win at Churchill Downs; Medina Spirit was 12-1. Since both were long-shot winners leading from gate to wire in the Derby, the comparison was inevitable.
“War Emblem, he was just coming off a big, strong win,” Baffert said. “He ran like a 112 Beyer. I mean, he was fast for us. What did Medina get? 102? Bode, my son, said that was our second-fastest Derby in May. I think War Emblem may have run the fastest.”
Such early speed is alleged to be a precious commodity in the Preakness. Such a claim is often bellowed in the same breath as the pronouncement that the turns are tight at Pimlico. But in an annual scolding that began with former Daily Racing Form writer Mike Watchmaker and has become as predictable as epigrams in this weekly story, the speed bias and cozy corners at the Old Hilltop track do not stand up to factual reality.
While Pimlico has more banking, satellite photos prove the turns are exactly as tight as they are at Churchill Downs. And the supposed speed bias falls apart when seeing gate-to-wire victories in only five of 38 runnings of the Preakness since 1983. Nine of 21 winners since 2000 were at least two lengths off the lead with 3½ furlongs to go, most recently War Of Will in 2019.
Of course, the last two times a horse led the whole way in the Preakness, he was trained by Baffert. The names American Pharoah and Justify may have a ring of familiarity. Does Medina Spirit fit in with them? Hardly. Even Baffert said last month, “He’s the kind of horse that’s like top 10, and if somebody stubs their toe he’s going to be right there.”
Before the Kentucky Derby, would-be pacesetter Caddo River stubbed his toe when he was said to have caught a fever and never made the entry box. Rock Your World could have joined Medina Spirit on the lead, but he stubbed his toe when he did not get away from the starting gate cleanly. Midnight Bourbon stubbed his toe when jockey Mike Smith took him back as if they were going to race 2¼ miles. Essential Quality stubbed his toe when his poor start forced him to go wide, and he could not make up any ground in the stretch when the race was there for the taking.
Essential Quality will not be at the Preakness. Neither will Rock Your World. Midnight Bourbon might be. So might Caddo River, the speed horse who could have changed the entire complexion of the Triple Crown had he been in the starting gate last weekend.
Rested new shooters, the horses that were not in the Kentucky Derby, could also stir the waters. Concert Tour would be one such horse. Other names will be in and out of the conversation before they are even in the Pimlico starting gate for the 9½-furlong assignment.
Since 1984 only five new shooters have won the Preakness, and two were fillies who came out of the Kentucky Oaks — Rachel Alexander in 2009 and Swiss Skydiver last year. The theory goes that if horses were good enough for the Kentucky Derby, why would their connections skip that and go instead to the Preakness?
Then again, 11 horses that could have entered the Derby saw their connections take a pass for reasons other than fitness. Like Concert Tour. The last seven years at least one new shooter has finished in the money in the Preakness, and two hit the board in four of the last six years.
What all this adds up to say is that the Kentucky Derby might have seen Baffert crowned as the race’s greatest trainer, but a lot of toe stubbing went on at Churchill Downs. Baffert and Medina Spirit were the beneficiaries. Come May 15 in Baltimore, those toes might be in good shape. And Baffert still might come out ahead, this time with Concert Tour.
Long ago I compared the Triple Crown races with “The Brady Bunch” girls. The Derby was pretty Marcia, the Belmont was surprising Cindy and the Preakness was smart Jan. Then it was the Dunphy kids on “Modern Family.” The Derby was glamorous Haley, the Belmont was unpredictable Luke and the Preakness was overachieving Alex.
Is there a ’20s show that can fill the void? Maybe it should be called “Keeping Up With the Bafferts.” I will leave the casting to someone else. Just make sure a podiatrist is nearby.
In addition to this weekly report, Ron Flatter’s racing column is available every Friday morning at VSiN.com and more often for big races like the Kentucky Derby. You can also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com/podcasts. This week’s episode features NBC News correspondent Steve Kornacki, a longtime horseplayer who predicted Medina Spirit’s victory in the Kentucky Derby. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is available for free subscription at iHeart, Apple, Google, Spotify and Stitcher. It is sponsored by 1/ST Bet.