By T. D. Thornton
This week's Triple Crown feature ranks the GI Preakness S. entrants in “likeliest winner” order.
1) Medina Spirit (Protonico–Mongolian Changa, by Brilliant Speed) O-Zedan Racing Stables; B-Gail Rice (FL); T-Bob Baffert; J-John Velazquez. Sales History: $1,000 ylg '19 OBSWIN; $35,000 2yo '20 OBSOPN. Equineline PPs.
There's an old adage in sports betting that warns not to bet against underdog, overachieving teams that keep winning “must” games, and although that analogy is not an exact fit for Medina Spirit, he definitely matches the mold of having more fight in him than his pedigree and bargain-basement auction pricing ($1,000 OBSWIN, $35,000 OBSOPN) suggest. And while the world focuses on the pending outcome of his allegedly drug-positive Derby win (a process that could take years to adjudicate), the fact remains that this Protonico colt maintained a rhythmic cadence under constant pressure, then swatted away multiple late threats through the fastest final Derby quarter-mile (:25.04) since 2011. Now he's coming back two weeks later, and 16 of those top-of-the-crop horses Medina Spirit pasted in Louisville want no part of him in Baltimore. The Preakness is likely to be decided straight out of the gate. Trainer Bob Baffert had maintained through the spring that Medina Spirit was more effective chasing a target rather than setting the pace, but then jockey John Velazquez put him on the lead in the Derby when no one else was keen to take charge. On Saturday, Medina Spirit may have no other choice than to forcefully seek the lead, having drawn post three inside of the two other main speed threats, Midnight Bourbon (Tiznow) and 'TDN Rising Star' Concert Tour (Street Sense). In all three of Medina Spirit's wins, he has either been on the front end or just a head off it at the second call, and it's unlikely that Baffert will waste this colt's proven tactical weapon by instructing Velazquez to try and rate him inside of horses in the second leg of the Triple Crown.
Trainer Todd Pletcher has never won the Preakness, but he has a sneaky-good shot to do so with this homebred Honor Code gray for Whisper Hill Farm. Unbridled Honor ran a better-than-looks fourth at 21-1 odds in the GII Tampa Bay Derby; that race was his first outside the maiden ranks, and he launched a respectable five-wide drive from last over a drying-out track. His second in the sloppy GIII Lexington S. at Keeneland over the short-stretch 1 1/16 miles configuration is also worthy of a thumbs-up. Unbridled Honor was parked in last, got pelted with kickback, split horses entering the far turn to pick off half the field, then had to dodge a rapidly backpedaling rival while pinned near the fence. He tipped out four wide to achieve second (and a 91 Beyer Speed Figure) behind King Fury (Curlin), who would have been among the Preakness favorites had a fever not knocked him out of consideration. Pletcher will make a jockey switch, replacing Julien Leparoux (0-for-7 for Pletcher in limited action over the last five years) with Luis Saez (23% win clip from 677 starters for Pletcher over the same time frame).
3) Midnight Bourbon (Tiznow–Catch the Moon, by Malibu Moon) O-Winchell Thoroughbreds LLC; B-Stonestreet Thoroughbred Holdings LLC (Ky); T-Steve Asmussen; J-Irad Ortiz, Jr. Sales History: $525,000 Ylg '19 KEESEP. Equineline PPs.
Midnight Bourbon's connections are banking on a better gate break, a cleaner trip, and more emphasis on attaining a spot near the front in the Preakness to give this $525,000 KEESEP colt a chance at his first win since wiring the GIII Lecomte S. back in January. Trainer Steve Asmussen has spoken of Midnight Bourbon in superlatives when describing how well this brawny son of Tiznow exited his bump-and-grind sixth in Louisville, emphasizing that the six weeks of spacing between the GII Louisiana Derby and the Kentucky Derby should work in his favor for the Preakness. Midnight Bourbon lucked into an ideal pace scenario in the Lecomte when a missed break by the main speed threat in that Fair Grounds prep meant he found himself on the lead controlling a moderate tempo. But such a pressure-free situation is unlikely to replicate itself in the Preakness. New jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr. will have to gun hard from post five to out-hoof the two speed-oriented favorites drawn inside and outside. Midnight Bourbon's eight-race foundation (all at a mile or longer) and consistent Beyers in the 90s at age three should theoretically work in his favor.
'TDN Rising Star' Concert Tour's blah third as the 3-10 fave in the GI Arkansas Derby perhaps rates as a too-bad-to-be-true effort. This Gary and Mary West homebred won the internal pace battle but lost the race when he caved badly without any obvious excuse during a tepid :26.49 fourth quarter, and even though he could have qualified based on points and was stabled at Churchill, trainer Bob Baffert passed on the Derby. Concert Tour's frontrunning GII Rebel S. score two starts back was accomplished professionally and all under his own power, but the looming question for the Preakness involves whether jockey Mike Smith will have instructions to commit to the lead from post 10, possibly forcing an early hook-up with stablemate Medina Spirit. The bet here is that Smith instead tries to carve out his preferred trip in two-turn stakes, which means giving up ground on the first turn and remaining in the clear outside of horses to launch a far-turn bid. Those tactics have worked numerous times in partnership with other well-meant Baffert runners, but in this spot Concert Tour isn't an odds-on favorite who looks clearly superior to his rivals on paper. He will have to work hard early to stay in touch with the pacemakers, then come up with some upgraded torque in deep stretch if he's to prevail in the stakes that his Derby-winning sire, Street Sense, lost by a head in 2007.
5) Crowded Trade (More Than Ready–Maude S, by Jump Start) O-Klaravich Stables, Inc.; B-Forging Oaks LLC (Ky); T-Chad Brown; J-Javier Castellano; Sales History: $185,000 wnlg '18 KEENOV. Equineline PPs.
Crowded Trade has only three lifetime starts and has never been off the board. He did, in fact, make the Derby cut based on qualifying points, but trainer Chad Brown opted to hold him out of that race with an eye toward a more realistic target, and the Preakness is it. The longer time between races and the slightly shorter distance were the primary reasons, and Brown is aware this More Than Ready colt will need a leapfrog effort that translates to several notches of improvement for Crowded Trade to be in it to win it. This colt's Aqueduct MSW win, second in the GIII Gotham S., and third in the GII Wood Memorial matches the same three-race pattern (in terms of finish positions and time between races) for the Brown-trained and Klaravich-owned Cloud Computing, who upset the 2017 Preakness S. at 13-1 odds. But Brown has repeatedly said the main difference between the two is that he was more confident about Cloud Computing's ability to get the 1 3/16 miles distance. Five horses have now run back out of this year's Wood Memorial (slowest in the race's history), but only one next-out starter managed a top-three finish.
6) Keepmeinmind (Laoban–Inclination, by Victory Gallop) O-Spendthrift Farm LLC, Cypress Creek LLC & Arnold Bennewith. B-Southern Equine Stables, LLC (Ky). T-Robertino Diodoro; J-David Cohen. Equineline PPs.
Keepmeinmind (seventh in Louisville) and Midnight Bourbon (sixth) are the only two Derby participants whose connections are willing to take another run at Medina Spirit. Being caught widest of all in the 10 path turning for home in the Derby likely didn't aid this colt's chances of winning, but it's difficult to make the case that it cost him a better placing. This off-the-tailgate styled son of Laoban has been outclassed in three starts at age three, beaten 32 1/2 total lengths, and his lone career win was an 80-Beyer effort in the GII Kentucky Jockey Club S. last November. His maternal grandsire, Victory Gallop, ran second as the beaten fave in the 1998 Preakness; he lost to Real Quiet both in Louisville and in Baltimore prior to his dramatic Triple Crown-denying GI Belmont S. score. Keepmeinmind's best hope for the Preakness involves a multi-horse speed duel with fast early fractions to melt down the pace, He will be passing horses at the end. The question is, how many?
7) Risk Taking (Medaglia d'Oro–Run a Risk, by Distorted Humor) O-Klaravich Stables, Inc.; B-G. Watts Humphrey Jr. (Ky); T-Chad Brown; J-Jose Ortiz; Sales History: $240,000 yrl '19 KEESEP. Equineline PPs.
This $240,000 KEESEP buy, by Medaglia d'Oro out of a Distorted Humor mare, has a couple of promising nine-furlong wins to build on, and his smart score in the GIII Withers S. was accomplished by cruising along comfortably in stalk mode before quickening when cued five-sixteenths out. But Risk Taking then had two months between starts when attempting the Apr. 3 GII Wood Memorial S., and his bobble at the break was really only a mild excuse that didn't entirely explain a punchless seventh as the beaten fave. Risk Taking had been the 7-5 morning line favorite for last Saturday's GIII Peter Pan S. at Belmont, but scratched to take aim at the Preakness. The Peter Pan ended up being won by an 89-Beyer performance. That number equates to Risk Taking's career best, but it's a figure he will have to up considerably to be a major player in Baltimore. His multiple GISW sire only twice finished worse than second in a 17-race career-but one of those off-the-board efforts was an eighth-place try behind War Emblem in the 2002 Preakness.
This Twirling Candy homebred has earned a higher Beyer in every consecutive start over six races, but he enters the Preakness having never won over a dirt surface (turf and Tapeta victories only). His best effort was a last-to-first try in the El Camino Real Derby back on Feb. 13 (two next-out winners from eight starters). And although he got bumped by the eventual winner out of the gate in the Apr. 3 GII Blue Grass S., it didn't really hamper his trip when third and beaten 5 3/4 lengths. For Rombauer, the faster they go up front in the Preakness, the better.
9) France Go de Ina (Will Take Charge–Dreamy Blues, by Curlin) O-Yuji Inaida; B-Betz, Kidder, B & K Canetti & Jim Betz (Ky); T-Hideyuki Mori; J-Joel Rosario; Sales History: $100,000 yrl '19 KEESEP. Equineline PPs.
The presence of a Japan-based horse in a Triple Crown event means the race can be simulcast into that country, and France Go de Ina's connections took up the Maryland Jockey Club's invite to be the first Japanese runner in the Preakness since Lani ran fifth in 2016. This $100,000 KEESEP yearling, by Will Take Charge out of a Curlin mare, owns two forwardly placed, open-length wins at nine furlongs over the clockwise course at Hanshin. But he got a stern class check when slow from the stalls and sixth in the UAE Derby over the counter-clockwise dirt strip at Meydan. Jockey Joel Rosario had picked up the undercard mount on France Go de Ina when he was in Dubai to ride the G1 World Cup, and he must have liked the colt enough to commit to riding back in the Preakness nearly a week before the race was drawn. France Go de Ina's trainer, Hideyuki Mori, was first Japanese trainer to saddle a Derby starter (Ski Captain, 14th in 1995) and was also the first Japanese trainer to win a Group 1 in Europe (France, 1998).
10) Ram (American Pharoah–Miner's Secret, by Mineshaft) O-Christina Baker & William L. Mack; B-Michael Edward Connelly (Ky); T-D. Wayne Lukas; J-Ricardo Santana, Jr.; Sales History: $375,000 yrl '19 KEESEP. Equineline PPs.
Ram, a $375,000 KEESEP ridgling, required eight starts and a drop into $50,000 claiming company to break his maiden. But he followed up that 74-Beyer win at Oaklawn Apr. 16 with a first-level allowance score on the May 1 Derby undercard in a one-turn Churchill mile (81 Beyer). This prompted trainer D. Wayne Lukas to enter this son of American Pharoah in the Preakness as his 45th starter in a stakes the Hall-of-Fame conditioner has won six times since 1980. Ram, a May 13 foal, is just this week turning three, and Lukas has repeatedly acknowledged that the colt he picked out of the sale is sometimes headstrong and has been slow to develop. Ram's top-earning older sibling, Coal Front, specialized in shorter stakes during 2017-19, winning the G2 Godolphin Mile and a trio of Grade II and Grade III sprints between six and seven furlongs. Jockey Ricardo Santana, Jr. is 0-for-25 when pairing with Lukas over the last five years, with no mounts since 2018.