By Christina Bossinakis
BALTIMORE, MD–The past two weeks has seen the kind of drama that one might expect in soap opera, laden with twists and turns that have left even the most seasoned turfwriters scratching their heads in disbelief. However, despite the all head-snapping headlines, the days leading up to this year's Preakness at Pimlico were business as usual. Thursday morning's activity matched the Baltimore weather, brisk and clear, with everything seemingly running without any major glitches. Following a brief hiatus because of the COVID pandemic, the morning tours were back in force at Pimlico, and given the robust turnout, it appeared fans remained eager to come out and experience racing's biggest events. Meanwhile, the 1/ST team of vets were clearly getting their steps in, making their rounds throughout the Preakness barns, while the typical mass of reporters milled about waiting for the reigning Kentucky Derby champ Mage (Good Magic) to make his way to the track promptly after the break at about 8:45a.m.
Faiza Puts Unbeaten Record on the Line
Friday's card at Pimlico is highlighted by a trio of graded stakes, anchored by the nine-furlong GII George E. Mitchell Black-Eyed Susan S. The one clearly to beat is the undefeated Michael Lund Petersen's Faiza (Girvin), who has reeled off four consecutive graded victories, including the GI Starlet S. last December. This season, she won the GIII Las Virgenes S. and GIII Santa Ysabel S. before taking the GII Santa Anita Oaks.
“She's very professional. She's got a really good mind,” said trainer Bob Baffert. “Every time [Flavien] Prat rides, he says there is so much more in the tank because she doesn't win by a lot. I think [the Black-Eyed Susan] is going to be a step up. She will be running against more horses, so you never know. But she's doing really well.”
In Faiza's latest start in the Apr. 8 Santa Anita Oaks, she rolled home an impressive 6 1/2-length winner.
“She was really on when he asked her to go. I trained her a little bit stiffer for that one because I figured it was going to be a tougher race,” Baffert explained. “She looks great. She's healthy. She's really in the zone right now. I think she would have been tough in the [Kentucky] Oaks, but we'll find out in the Black-Eyed Susan.”
Flying a bit under the radar is Madaket Stables' Balpool (Uncaptured), who rides a two-race win skein. A comfortable winner going a mile at the Big A Apr. 7, the Florida-bred followed up with another in an off-turf renewal of the Memories of Silver S. at that venue Apr. 29.
“We were kind of scratching our heads as to what kind of filly she was,” admitted trainer Rob Atras. “That allowance race came up, so we figured we'd give her another shot in there and she really handled that field well that day. She really finished up good and kind of ran away from them. We got a little lucky with the stake [coming off the turf] but she still beat a couple decent fillies in there so, to me, it looks like she's progressing and getting better with every start. We're kind of excited about her and we're hoping that if we do run that she'll take another step forward.”
Brad Cox offers a two-pronged attack with Don Alberto's Merlazza (Medaglia d'Oro) and Godolphin homebred Comparative (Street Sense). The former won two of her first three starts before adding a victory in Oaklawn's Valley Of The Vapors S. Apr. 22.
“We have been pointing to this race with her since she won the first level allowance at the Fair Grounds [Mar. 25],” confirmed Cox.
Florent Geroux, who was aboard for her first three starts before being replaced by Joel Rosario for her latest, gets back aboard Friday.
In regard to her latest victory, Cox explained, “I just liked the way the race came up at Oaklawn. I thought she fit very well. It was a bit oddly run since there wasn't much pace and she sat behind horses and Joel did a good job of getting her out and letting her finish up.”
Although stepping up to graded company for the first time, Cox remains confident the Don Alberto homebred is up to the task.
“She's had two solid works since at Churchill and she shipped well and looks amazing,” he said. “I think she'll handle the mile and an eighth. It's her first attempt at graded stakes company but I think she's that caliber.”
And another reason to run at Pimlico?
“I obviously want to keep her away from Wet Paint,” he said with a chuckle.
Comparative needed several tries to get going, but finally broke through going 8 1/2 furlongs at the Fair Grounds in February before making it two straight in a Keeneland optional claimer Apr. 7. Luis Saez was aboard for both her career victories.
“I think Merlazza is probably a little bit quicker off the blocks than Comparative, but I think I would like Luis to keep Comparative involved [early],” Cox explained. “I think she does her best running when she's up close, and she showed that in her last two. She's stepping up in competition and we're going to need to see her move forward.”
Friday Undercard Packs Competitive Affairs
Cox also packs a punch in the six-furlong GIII Miss Preakness S. with morning line favorite Key of Life (Mo Town). The winner of three consecutive races last season, including the Myrtlewood S. at Keeneland, the bay finished third in the mud in the Dixie Belle S. at Oaklawn in February before annexing two straight in the Purple Mountain S. followed by the seven-furlong Beaumont S. at Keeneland Apr. 16.
“That's a good race,” said Cox of the Miss Preakness. “It's not a big field but it's a competitive group. There are some other fillies in there with speed, so I think it's going to be a jock's race. Flavien [Prat] is going to have to figure out a trip from down on the inside. They'll obviously need to get out and get some position, but hopefully, we can have enough late so she can finish down the lane.”
Trying to play the role of spoiler in the Miss Preakness is undefeated Maple Leaf Mel (Cross Traffic). All three of her wins have been recorded while facing New York-bred competition, including her sole start in 2023 in the East View S. at Aqueduct Mar. 24. She is campaigned by famed Hall of Fame football coach Bill Parcell's August Dawn Farm.
In the male handicap division, Twin Creeks' Law Professor (Constitution) will try and collect his first graded score since taking the 2021 renewal of the GII Santa Anita Mathis Mile. Victorious in last season's Tapit S. at Kentucky Downs before finishing runner-up to Life Is Good in the GI Woodward S. and a fifth in the GI Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile, the gelding launched 2023 with a win in the Queen's County S. at Aqueduct in January before coming home third in Oaklawn's GIII Razorback H. Feb. 18. Well supported in a muddy renewal of the nine-furling Excelsior Apr. 1, he came home a 4 1/4-length winner. Manny Franco, who was aboard for both wins this season, gets the call.
Also coming into this year's Pimlico Special off a win is Lucky Seven Stable's Rattle N Roll (Connect), victorious in the GIII Ben Ali S. at Keeneland Apr. 22. Trained by Ken McPeek, the chestnut won three races at the stakes level, including the GIII Oklahoma Derby at Remington Park.