BALTIMORE — The Kentucky Derby is a happening. The Preakness happens two weeks later.
The unique lure of the classic at decrepit old Pimlico is that as long as the Derby winner runs, a Triple Crown is a possibility.
For the first time in 23 years, the horse who wore the garland of roses won’t be going for the blanket of Black-Eyed Susans. Stall 40 in the stakes barn, always reserved for the Derby winner, is empty. Country House, who inherited the victory because Maximum Security was disqualified to 17th for interference, is skipping the race after developing a cough. Maximum Security is hanging out at Monmouth Park, and second- and third-place Code of Honor and Tacitus also are taking a break.
Making this a Preakness with a major weakness.
Marylander Michael Trombetta trains Win Win Win, who finished ninth at Churchill Downs. He grew up dreaming of winning his local race. “The Preakness isn’t the Derby, but it’s close,” he said.
Not this year.
The last time the Derby winner and runner-up bypassed Crabtown was 1985, when Spend a Buck went to the Jersey Derby at Garden State Park and Stephan’s Odyssey was laid off until the Belmont Stakes. As for the Derby’s first four being absent, a tedious hour poring over the tiny print of 143 Preakness charts produced a headache but found no precedent.
Only Improbable, War of Will, Win Win Win and Bodexpress emerged from the Derby, so enter the new shooters. There are nine, the same number as in 2011 and one more than in 2016. Usually, the majority are locally based, but this time only Alwaysmining carries Maryland’s flag. He’s won six in a row, all at Laurel, against very weak competition.
Anothertwistafate, Market King, Owendale and Signalman last raced at Keeneland, Laughing Fox and Warrior’s Charge at Oaklawn, and Everfast at Churchill Downs. That leaves trainer Mark Hennig’s Bourbon War, who looks like the best of the new faces despite being 12-1 in the morning line. He hasn’t been seen since he was a distant fourth behind Maximum Security on March 30 in the Florida Derby.
Bourbon War is a closer, not the running style you want at speed-biased Gulfstream Park, and he had no chance chasing Maximum Security’s ridiculously slow fractions. The Preakness projects as a better pace setup for Bourbon War, with Alwaysmining and Warrior’s Charge providing cheap speed, and 5-2 favorite Improbable not far behind. Hennig is adding blinkers to try to keep Bourbon War from dropping too far back.
“We have no intention of trying to be part of the pace,” Hennig said. “I’d just like him to be a little more focused, less distracted, and closer turning for home. So I don’t know that it puts us that much closer to the pace as it puts us much more in the game.”
Bourbon War’s late-pace figures are excellent, and if he’s within striking range entering the stretch, he could be surging at the eighth pole. One concern is his seven-week layoff, but 2017 Preakness champion Cloud Computing had been off six weeks.
“I would qualify it more as ideal,” Hennig said. “I’m really excited about the seven weeks between races. I think he’s a horse who would do well on longer rest because he’s still developing.”
Another plus is there’s no star to beat, yet Hennig still sounds more hopeful than confident. This Preakness is that kind of race.
“I think not having the Derby winner and the horse who finished first and even Code of Honor makes a big difference from a competitive standpoint,” Hennig said. “But some of the new shooters, I was very impressed with them. There are some fresh faces that could have a lot to say in the 3-year-old division before the year is over.”