By T. D. Thornton
This week's TDN Triple Crown feature examines the GI Preakness S. entrants listed in “likeliest winner” order.
Epicenter's second-place run in the GI Kentucky Derby was the type of effort that would have resulted in a win in most years. It also underscored his top-of-the-crop status as an impeccably consistent A-lister who is not dependent on a certain running style and doesn't need other horses to make mistakes in order to fire his best shot. This $260,000 KEESEP colt by Not This Time can handle front-end pressure if need be while reserving plenty of strength for late-race fights, as evidenced by his leading at the stretch call in six consecutive races over increasing distances. With at least two speed threats drawn inside of him (plus several others depending on how you read the race), my guess is Joel Rosario will opt to stalk or drop back to midpack. The Derby was Epicenter's first try at rating from as far back as eighth, and if those tactics worked in a 20-horse race, the well-seasoned Epicenter should be unfazed given a field of nine in Baltimore. You have to pick away at historical angles that aren't directly related to Epicenter to find reasons that he is not the most likely Preakness winner. One of them is trainer Steve Asmussen's 0-for-eight record over the past five years when running horses back in exactly 14 days in graded stakes (four of those were Preakness losses). Yet in all 14-days-off races over that time frame, Asmussen has a more respectable 20% win rate from 216 starters.
2) Early Voting (c, Gun Runner–Amour d'Ete, by Tiznow) O-Klaravich Stables, Inc. B-Three Chimneys Farm, LLC (KY). T-Chad Brown. Sales History: $200,000 yrl '20 KEESEP.
As a legit top-eight contender whose connections bypassed the Derby, Early Voting looms as the obvious Preakness second fave. As far back as March, speculation had been brewing that trainer Chad Brown would run this lightly raced colt in the GII Wood Memorial and then the Preakness, skipping the first jewel of the Triple Crown the same way he did in 2017 with Cloud Computing, who parlayed a third-place Wood try into a pace-pressing Preakness upset. Although that narrative will play a role in driving down the price on this $200,000 KEESEP colt by Gun Runner, the analogy between the two isn't entirely on the money. For one thing, the stronger-on-paper Early Voting won't be anywhere close to Cloud Computing's 13-1 mutuel. Another is that Early Voting's second-place performance in the Wood Memorial resonates as a stronger benchmark as to what he might be capable of farther into the season (Cloud Computing retired after going 0-for-four post-Preakness). In the Wood, Early Voting's high-cruising gear enabled him to rattle off up-tempo consecutive quarters of :23.86, :23.89, :23.84 and :24.04, and he respectably held well against the more experienced Mo Donegal (Uncle Mo) in a deep-stretch grind-down that featured a robust final eighth in :12.33–pretty impressive considering that not-fully-cranked effort was Early Voting's third lifetime start.
3) Secret Oath (f, Arrogate–Absinthe Minded, by Quiet American) O-Briland Farm. B-Briland Farm, Robert & Stacy Mitchell (KY). T-D. Wayne Lukas.
After running up the score by 23 cumulative lengths in three Oaklawn Park races, this Arrogate-sired Briland Farm homebred attempted to accrue Kentucky Derby qualifying points via the GI Arkansas Derby. That slowly run stakes might have been her best shot at the boys, but trip woes (bothered at break, dropped back to last, six-wide move on the far turn) didn't exactly help her chances despite the soft competition. Coming off of that third-place try, Secret Oath overcame post one in the 14-filly GI Kentucky Oaks, rating kindly under new jockey Luis Saez before unleashing an in-hand far-turn bid from the five path. She pounced on the second fave then held off the chalk late, widening her winning margin under a drive through a respectable :12.96 final eighth. Now in the autumn years of a paradigm-defining career, trainer D. Wayne Lukas is attempting to win yet another Triple Crown race with a filly, like he did with Derby victress Winning Colors in 1988. But the roughly two-week turnaround is no longer a standard practice in racing, even for an 86-year-old master. Over the last five years, Lukas is 10-for-73 overall bringing horses back on just 13 to 15 days of rest. That same-frame figure dips to just three-for-20 for his female horses at all levels of racing, and tails off to 0-for-six (with both sexes) if you count only graded stakes layoffs of 13 to 15 days.
Simplification deserved to be a lot lower than 35-1 odds in the Derby. So his fourth-place try, beaten only 3 1/2 lengths, was not some wacky aberration. It was a commendable effort, but not the type that makes you want to run to the windows to bet him at 6-1 two weeks later. This son of Not This Time ($50,000 RNA at KEENOV) advanced from 15th and got hooked four deep on the far turn before diving inside and bulling his way into contention. Then he had a secondary spurt of acceleration at the eighth pole, but it lasted only another sixteenth of a mile before petering out. The chief concern in the Preakness is that Simplification has plateaued, and my suspicion is that we've already seen his best efforts, all of which earn mid-90s Beyer Speed Figures (below par for Triple Crown races). Jose Ortiz opted to ride Early Voting, so John Velazquez picked up the mount. That combination of one of America's premier front-end jockeys, plus the draw of the one hole, could signal that Simplification might revert to either setting or forcing the pace like he did capably earlier in his career. Trainer Antonio Sano and Johnny V. have only engaged in limited business together over the last five years, posting a two-for-nine mark, with the same horse accounting for claiming and allowance wins in 2019.
Happy Jack got his tail caught in the gate prior to the Derby, had to be backed out, then “started acting crazy” according to jockey Rafael Bejarano. He finished 14th, and under most circumstances, such a trouble comment would mean a line goes right through that performance. But even if you toss out that try, Happy Jack doesn't give us much to go on based on his first four races: He broke his maiden sprinting in a 24-1 debut while racing on Lasix, then got trounced by an aggregate 49 1/2 lengths in three subsequent non-Lasix, short-field SoCal stakes. There is hope, however, if you like to follow the long-shot follies of owner/breeder Calumet Farm, whose sophomores have lit up the tote board with sizable upsets and near-misses in Derby preps and Triple Crown races over the last decade. Happy Jack's sire, Oxbow, won the 2013 Preakness at 15-1. Bravazo won the GII Risen Star S. at 21-1 in '18, then in the Preakness was beaten only a half-length at 15-1 by eventual Triple Crown winner Justify. Everfast was second at 29-1 in the '19 Preakness, and Bourbonic uncorked a 72-1 last-to-first shocker in the '21 Wood Memorial. Based on that recent history, ignore this Calumet color bearer at your own pari-mutuel peril.
6) Creative Minister (c, Creative Cause–Tamboz, by Tapit) O-Fern Circle Stables, Back Racing, LLC & Magdalena Racing. B-Dell Ridge Farm, LLC (KY). T-Ken McPeek. Sales History: $180,000 yrl '20 KEESEP.
Creative Minister's dam, Tamboz, was one-for-21 and earned $38,530 while primarily racing at Charles Town. But a year after she finished racing–and just days before Tamboz was to be sold at the 2012 KEENOV sale while in foal to Tiznow–her full brother, Tapizar, won the GI Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile, sending her price soaring to $440,000. Creative Minister's sire, Creative Cause, was third in the '12 Preakness, and this $180,000 KEESEP colt will be trying to win on Saturday while being light on experience (just three races) but high on momentum. He won on the Derby undercard against a deep allowance/optional claiming group despite not getting a clean break, and Creative Minister's MSW score at Keeneland two starts back is shaping up as a potential key race, with two of the also-rans emerging to win subsequent starts. A concern is that like three others in the Preakness, this colt's only wins came in Lasix-permitted races, and he'll have to forego that medication on Saturday.
7) Armagnac (c, Quality Road–Kitty Wine, by Lemon Drop Kid) O-SF Racing LLC, Starlight Racing, Madaket Stables LLC, Robert E. Masterson, Stonestreet Stables LLC, Jay A. Schoenfarber, Waves Edge Capital LLC, Catherine Donovan, Golconda Stable & Siena Farm LLC. B-Stone Farm & Joseph W. Sutton (KY). T-Tim Yakteen. Sales History: $210,000 yrl '20 KEESEP.
Armagnac, who turns three the day before the Preakness, is a $210,000 KEESEP colt with serious distance underpinnings on the bottom of his pedigree (not too many broodmares still around by 1999 GI Belmont S. winner Lemon Drop Kid) tempered by eight- and nine-furlong Grade I-winning speed supplied by sire Quality Road. Although Armagnac got roughed up by 29 1/4 combined lengths in the GII San Felipe S. and the GI Santa Anita Derby, his confidence got boosted with a May 8 allowance/optional claiming wiring at Santa Anita (93 Beyer) in which he repulsed a bid from the odds-on fave. For the Preakness, he'll come off Lasix, ship across the country, and step up significantly in class while picking up Irad Ortiz, Jr., for the first time. Over the past five years, trainer Tim Yakteen is three-for-24 with starters coming back on a rest of just 13 to 15 days.
8) Skippylongstocking (c, Exaggerator–Twinkling, by War Chant) O-Daniel Alonso. B-Brushy Hill, LLC (KY). T-Saffie Joseph, Jr. Sales History: $15,000 yrl '20 KEESEP; $37,000 2yo '21 OBSAPR.
Skippylongstocking's sire (Exaggerator) and paternal grandsire (Curlin) were both Preakness winners. This $15,000 KEESEP and $37,000 OBSAPR colt has won just twice from nine starts, both at Gulfstream in six-horse races. Only three of his tries have been in stakes, and 'Skip' has only managed to hit the board once at that level while being dusted by a total of 34 1/4 lengths. He's coming off a best-of-the-rest third in the Wood Memorial, and the 91 Beyer he earned for that effort represented his third straight improvement, numbers-wise. But realistically, this colt is still going to have to find about 10 more points on the Beyer scale to be competitive on Saturday.
9) Fenwick (c, Curlin–Make the Sun Shine, by Malibu Moon) O-Villa Rosa Farm & Harlo Stable. B-John C. Oxley (KY). T-Kevin McKathan. Sales History: $52,000 yrl '20 FTKOCT.
This $52,000 FTKOCT son of 2007 Preakness champ Curlin was luckless in four starts in New York and New Orleans. Then he wired a MSW at 21-1 odds over a drying-out track on the GII Tampa Bay Derby undercard. Coming off Lasix to race in the GI Blue Grass S., Fenwick saved ground from post two but had to steady through the first turn when caught in traffic. He eventually worked his way up to be 2 1/2 lengths off the lead down the backstretch and into the far bend, then consistently lost ground and was not hammered on when a placing was not evident. Trainer Kevin McKathan made no attempt to disguise tactics after the Preakness post draw: “My horse is going to the front,” he said. “I deserve to be 50-1 how we ran last time. I deserve to be that, maybe 60-1. He has to go to the front. We got cut off, shut off, in the Blue Grass…. He's a free-running horse. You put him on the lead and let him go at 50-1, they might never see him again.”