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Kentucky Derby controversy draws attention, good and bad, to Preakness

Improbable runs during training for Saturday's Preakness horse

Improbable runs during training for Saturday's Preakness horse race at Pimlico race track in Baltimore on Friday. Credit: AP/Steve Helber

BALTIMORE — The theory that there’s no such thing as bad publicity isn’t always true. The disqualification of Maximum Security in the Kentucky Derby spawned all sorts of negativity about thoroughbred racing.

Social media spewed volcanic venom. There were countless rants that the decision by Churchill Downs’ stewards created a black eye for the sport. More than $6.2 million was bet to win on Maximum Security, and his backers were enraged and embittered. Owners Gary and Mary West filed a federal lawsuit to try to reverse the ruling and redistribute the $1.86 million winner’s share.

Which brings us to Saturday’s middle jewel of a very tarnished Triple Crown, the 144th Preakness, in which 13 3-year-olds will run for $1.65 million. The Derby’s first four finishers – Maximum Security, winner Country House, Code of Honor, Tacitus – are absent. That has not happened since 1951. Improbable, an uncompetitive fifth, is the 5-2 morning-line favorite by default.

This uniquely bizarre back story won’t keep a crowd of more than 100,000 from wagering tons on a warm spring afternoon at Pimlico. Millions will watch on NBCSN and NBC, which planned to interview the aggrieved Gary West. So it will be business as usual, sort of.

D. Wayne Lukas, 83, is saddling 30-1 shot Market King, his record 44th runner in the Preakness, which he’s won six times. Lukas isn’t concerned about the Derby aftershocks. “All the experts say when there’s a great controversy, stick to your story for four days, and then nobody cares,” Lukas said.  

Mark Casse will saddle 4-1 second favorite War of Will, who narrowly escaped falling as Maximum Security veered out approaching the stretch. Casse, who likes to focus on the bright side, thinks the Derby madness may have created some badly needed interest in racing.

“Even with our Triple Crown winners, I don’t know if they got that much attention,” Casse said. “It’s been crazy. I have friends who know nothing about racing and watch one race a year, the Derby, and they tell me they’re waiting to watch the Preakness.

“It’s definitely drawn a lot of attention, good and bad, to horse racing.”

That was never more apparent than on “Mike’s On,” Mike Francesa’s afternoon show on WFAN. During the week after the Derby, racing was on. Many callers asked Francesa, a thoroughbred owner and racing maven, about the chaos at Churchill. Instead of hearing fans agonize over why the Yankees’ lineup doesn’t have nine potential Hall of Famers, Francesa was talking horses.

No one could have predicted that, just as nobody could have imagined that for the first time in 145 years, the Derby winner was taken down for a moving violation.

“It’s sort of a quiet Preakness,” trainer Bob Baffert said. “It’s a different feeling not having the Derby winner here. You always want to knock the Derby winner off.”

Baffert is going for his record eighth Preakness win with Improbable, who looks like a very shaky favorite. “I think the reason I won those races is because I came in with the best horse,” he said. “I think he’s one of the best horses, but he has to step up.”

Improbable is 0-for-3 this year and winless beyond 1 1/16 miles. Baffert’s horses rarely have stamina problems but staying 1 3/16 miles may be unlikely for Improbable, who didn’t handle the Derby distance. “A mile and a quarter might be stretching it for him,” said Baffert, who thinks the Preakness should be a better fit. “We’ll see how he handles Pimlico.        

“I wouldn’t say he’s a heavy, heavy favorite. The way the field shapes up, it’s a pretty even bunch.”

Miss Preakness Stakes runner dies.  The 3-year-old filly Congrats Gal died of cardiac arrest after collapsing just beyond the finish line Friday in Pimlico's eighth race, the Miss Preakness Stakes.   

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