LAS VEGAS--It is much easier to find a winner in the Preakness Stakes than it was in the Kentucky Derby, but it is also much harder to find good value.
With only a quarter of the Derby field coming back for Saturday’s race in Baltimore, and with five new horses that for the most part were not good enough to run for the roses, the process of elimination is a tidy piece of business.
As usual the Derby winner is the Preakness favorite. Always Dreaming has been 4-to-5 most of the week at both the Westgate Superbook and Wynn Las Vegas, and those are his win odds on the morning line at Pimlico. The last time the Derby winner was not the top choice at the Preakness was five years ago, when I’ll Have Another went off at odds of 7-to-2 and upset Bodemeister – the sire of Always Dreaming.
“I think he’s pretty special,” trainer Todd Pletcher said Friday morning after sending Always Dreaming out for a one-mile jog with a companion pony at Pimlico. “When you look at what he has done this year – winning his first couple of races by open lengths, winning the Florida Derby and the Kentucky Derby by the margins he did – it’s pretty exceptional.”
Classic Empire’s rough trip in the Derby that still resulted in a fourth-place finish has earned him enough respect to go along with his being named the best 2-year-old of 2016. He is not surprisingly the 3-to-1 second choice and is bidding to be only the second Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner to claim this race; Timber Country did it 22 years ago. Then again Classic Empire is only the sixth Juvenile winner to show up for the Preakness.
“He’s eager to go to the track,” Classic Empire’s trainer Mark Casse said. “This winter when we were having some issues, he kind of didn’t want to go to the track. Now he’s eager to go there and eager to train. He’s going to be real happy when it cools off, too.”
Indeed the temperature is expected to peak at around 70 on a dry, partly cloudy race day Saturday, when bettors will be faced with what they usually see at the Preakness – short odds on the most accomplished horses and not-so-long odds on the others. Eight years ago Mine That Bird may have won the Derby at 50-to-1, but the highest-priced Preakness winner ever was Master Derby in 1975 at 23-to-1.
It’s no wonder that bargains are hard to come by. The Kentucky Derby winner has finished first in seven of the last 15 runnings of the Preakness, including three of the last five. Derby horses – winners and also-rans – have won the Preakness 30 of the last 33 years.
But that does not preclude a “new shooter” from hitting the board and yielding a nice payoff. At least one has been in the Preakness top three 15 of the last 19 years. Last May it was 17-to-1 long shot Cherry Wine that fattened the exotics behind Exaggerator’s win at 5-to-2. The $2 exacta paid $88.40.
Where is this year’s Cherry Wine? Perhaps it is the impressively big colt Cloud Computing. After chasing a hot pace to finish second in the Gotham Stakes, he missed the start in the Wood Memorial but still finished third. Now he comes in as a 12-to-1 long shot here in Vegas and on the morning line.
After being drawn into gate 2 in the field of 10, trainer Chad Brown simply said, “I’m fine with the post. He should be able to work out a good trip from there.”
A horse that reigning U.S. champion jockey Javier Castellano will probably settle into the middle of the pack, Cloud Computing figures to be just behind Always Dreaming and Classic Empire and chasing the likely front-runner Conquest Mo Money.
Second in both the Sunland Derby and Arkansas Derby, Conquest Mo Money has odds of as high as 15-to-1 starting from the outside in gate 10.
“I like it,” first-time Preakness trainer Miguel Hernández said. “The last three times I had all outside positions, and the best happened to us. You are out of trouble, and you can see how it is going to play. I like that hole.”
The big question is what kind of pace will Conquest Mo Money set? If it is honest without being lightning quick, it will set up well for Always Dreaming and Classic Empire. If not, or if another horse is on the lead, then who knows?
Another Preakness rookie, Jorge Carreño, will ride Conquest Mo Money. Hernández was not tipping his hand about how he wants Carreño to set the pace.
“I really don’t know what’s going to happen,” Hernández said Friday morning. “I know there are a couple of speed horses inside of me. The only thing I told Jorge was be ready I don’t want to say exactly what I’d like to do, but my goal is to be close to the speed.”
After a steamy day Friday at Pimlico with thunderstorms in the area, the air will be cooler and drier for Saturday’s Preakness, which is expected to draw about 130,000 people and start at 6:48 p.m. EDT Saturday.