Speed answers speed in the 144th Preakness

By Ron Flatter  (VSiN.com) 

With José Contreras riding and assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes (right) keeping watch, Preakness favorite Improbable took a morning gallop around a rain-soaked main track Thursday morning at Pimlico in Baltimore. (photo by Ron Flatter)



Leave it to D. Wayne Lukas to throw a curveball into the Preakness Stakes. Actually, it is more like a four-seam fastball.


The Hall of Fame trainer with a record 14 victories in Triple Crown races has tossed the long shot Market King (30-1 morning line, 40-1 at the Westgate Las Vegas) into the mix for Saturday’s 144th Preakness here at Pimlico. In so doing he has injected a serious pacesetter that could offer the sort of blazing early speed that was missing from the Kentucky Derby.


“It’s a real competitive field, but I think it’s a doable deal,” Lukas told the Pimlico media-relations team this week. “You can’t mail it in. You’ve got to go around there.”


Lukas, 83, and jockey Jon Court, 58, are in position to be the oldest trainer and jockey to win a U.S. classic. Lukas was a teenager and Court was not even born in 1951, the last time that the Preakness did not have any horse that hit the board in the Kentucky Derby.


Without disputed Derby winners Maximum Security or Country House to kick them around, Lukas and Court will try to score Saturday with a colt that six weeks ago finished a tiring 11th in the Blue Grass Stakes. Then as now Market King brings one clear strategy. Get out of the gate, quickly get to the front, set the pace and lead from gate to wire.


But Market King will not be alone, and maybe that is the diabolical angle to Lukas dropping a maiden winner into the race. Allowance winner Warrior’s Charge (12-1, 12-1) was already in, and since he, too, will be surging out of the gate looking for the early lead, it was as if Lukas had a message for Warrior’s Charge’s trainer Brad Cox – I’ll see your speed and raise you mine.


“He’ll be forwardly placed; that’s what we’re hoping for,” Cox said. “If he can get the right trip and back things down, not necessarily on the lead, that’s OK. His (speed) figures stack up with these horses. That’s why we’re looking at this.”


Which leads to what might be Cox’s own diabolical scheme. He also has Owendale (10-1, 10-1) representing his stable in the race, and the Lexington Stakes winner would be well-served chasing an honest pace. So in spite of the $150,000 supplement fee that owners led by economics professor Marshall Gramm paid to get him into the Preakness, could Warrior’s Charge yet be a rabbit for Owendale?


“He’s not a rabbit,” Cox said. “These guys are putting up a good amount of money to give him this opportunity. They feel like that with the right pace set-up, he’s got a shot in here, and I do, too.”


Even without Market King and Warrior’s Charge, the Preakness was going to be full of horses comfortable being close to the lead. Local favorite and Federico Tesio winner Alwaysmining (8-1, 8-1), Lexington runner-up Anothertwistafate (6-1, 7-1) and maiden cum Kentucky Derby also-ran Bodexpress (20-1, 20-1) also figure to fit the cliché “forwardly placed.”


But now, with Market King and Warrior’s Charge, do not expect early fractions as slow as the 23.11 and 47.19 that Justify set last year on his way to a gate-to-wire win.


Which brings up the bogus, old saw about this race being kind to early speed – and the annual debunking of the two biggest myths about Pimlico. One is that it has tight turns supposedly made to order for speed horses. Although the course itself is narrower and the banking more pronounced, satellite images confirm that the radius of the two turns is almost exactly the same as it is at Churchill Downs.


The other myth is that Pimlico favors early speed. But in the 36 runnings of the Preakness since 1983, there have been only five gate-to-wire winners. Yes, they include three of the last six, but two of those – American Pharoah and Justify – were super horses. There is no such animal in this year’s race.


In truth Pimlico plays fair, even to closers. Six of the last 13 Preakness winners were at least 2½ lengths off the lead after three-quarters of a mile in the 9½-furlong race, most recently 2017, when Cloud Computing rallied in the stretch from three lengths back to win.


So if the presence of Market King and Warrior’s Charge translates to a hot, early pace, does this mean a closer is bound to win? Based on Quirin Speed Points (see the April 19 edition of this column), the only “S 0” horses in Saturday’s race are Laughing Fox (20-1, 30-1), winner two weeks ago of the Oaklawn Park Invitational, and Win Win Win (15-1, 12-1), 10th promoted to ninth in the Kentucky Derby.


Mid-pack horses like the favorite Improbable (5-2, 9-4) and Kentucky Jockey Club winner Signalman (30-1, 25-1), both winless as 3-year-olds, would also benefit from fast fractions through the first three-quarters of a mile.


So is Lukas being foolhardy putting in a speed horse to try and go stride for stride with a de facto rabbit? Or is it more foolhardy to question what this Hall of Famer is up to as he tries for a record-tying seventh Preakness win?


“Last year we waltzed into town with a horse, I don’t know what they put him in the morning line,” Lukas said of Bravazo, who was set at 20-1. “He was one jump from beating Justify. It’s a horse race. You treat it like a horse race.”


Ron Flatter’s weekly racing column is posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com and daily through the Preakness Stakes. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod, including Thursday’s pop-up edition featuring handicappers Johnny Avello, Vinny Magliulo, Patrick McQuiggan and Dave Tuley offering their analysis of each horse in the Preakness. Friday’s regular episode includes Xpressbet’s Jeremy Plonk and Preakness trainers Mark Casse and Brad Cox. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is also available at Apple, Google, Stitcher and at VSiN.com/podcasts.

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