By Richard Rosenblatt
No matter what unfolds in the next 24 hours, we know the 146th Preakness Stakes (G1) on Saturday will go into the record books as one of the strangest in Triple Crown history.
And, of course, white-haired Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert is in the middle of this most bizarre run-up to the second leg of the Triple Crown – even if he won’t be at Pimlico Race Course.
Baffert, the most recognizable figure in racing over the past quarter-century, trains Kentucky Derby (G1) winner Medina Spirit, who failed a post-race test for the steroid betamethasone and would be disqualified if a second sample comes back positive (the results may still be weeks away).
After some legal wrangling, Maryland racing officials and Baffert’s lawyer, Craig Robertson, hammered out an agreement that allows Medina Spirit and stablemate Concert Tour to run in the 1 3/16-mile Preakness under strict pre-race testing conditions.
Baffert is back home in California, opting to stay away from Pimlico so he wouldn’t be a distraction.
The uncertainty of it all, as well as another damaging blow to racing’s reputation, has put the biggest day of racing in Maryland – a race that may or may not determine whether a Triple Crown will be on the line in the Belmont Stakes on June 5 – in an unfavorable spotlight.
“The whole atmosphere here has changed,” 85-year-old Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas, who sent out longshot Ram in the Preakness, said this week. “The enthusiasm, the feel of excitement is not here. That’s what’s bad for the industry right there.”
Related: 2021 Preakness Stakes Picks: Our Contributors Like Baffert’s Boys
Lukas and Baffert have been friends for years, and between them they’ve won 31 Triple Crown races – 17 for Baffert (minus one if Medina Spirit is DQ’d from the Derby win) and 14 for Lukas.
Medina Spirit, who will be ridden by Hall of Famer John Velazquez, won the Derby from gate-to-wire, holding off Mandaloun by a half-length.
Derby favorite no slouch
The $1,000 colt has run six times, winning three, finishing second in the other three, and will break from post 3 in a field of 10 as the 9-5 morning favorite.
“He had no wear and tear (after the Derby),” Baffert’s longtime assistant Jimmy Barnes, who is in charge at Pimlico, said this week. “He came out in excellent shape and moved right ahead, forwardly. We only walked him three days and went right back to the track and jogged. That’s usually a sign, how soon we get back to the track, of how happy we are with the recovery from the race.”
Rebel Stakes (G2) winner Concert Tour, who missed the Derby after a poor finish in the Arkansas Derby (G1), returns in the Preakness as the 5-2 second choice. Hall of Famer Mike Smith gets the call and leaves from post 10.
Both colts are speedsters expected to take to the front and see if any others can catch them.
Derby winner and stablemate history in Preakness
This is not the first time a Derby winner and a stablemate have run in the Preakness with the chance that the ‘other horse’ could spoil a potential Triple Crown bid.
Baffert, wouldn’t you know, has been involved the past two times. Last year was odd since the COVID-19 pandemic delayed Preakness was run on Oct. 3 – after the Belmont and the Derby. Derby winner Authentic and stablemate Thousand Words ran in the Preakness won by the filly Swiss Skydiver. Tiz the Law had won the Belmont (the first of Triple Crown races in 2020).
In 2015, though, American Pharoah won the Derby and faced off against stablemate Dortmund in the Preakness. American Pharoah won and went on to become the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years by taking the Belmont.
Lukas saw one of his horses, Timber Country, defeat his 1995 Derby winner Thunder Gulch in the Preakness, with Thunder Gulch going on to win Belmont.
“I just give everybody a chance, and that’s the way it goes,” Baffert said. “(Owner) Gary West, with Concert Tour, he left it up to me. They send me these horses, and I’m giving them the best chance to win … Medina (Owned by Zedan Racing Stables) has a lot of Silver Charm (1997 Derby and Preakness winner) in him. He’s a fighter. So, you don’t know what’s going to happen. I think the draw and the break are critical. But they’re both doing well, and I want to give them the opportunity to run.”
Post time and weather
Post time for the Preakness, the 13th race on the 14-race card, is scheduled for 6:47 p.m. ET and will be televised by NBC Sports.
The weather on Saturday is looking sensational: Sunshine and some clouds, with temperatures reaching the mid-to-high 70s and a 3% chance of rain.
Among the top challengers to the Baffert duo are Midnight Bourbon at 5-1 for Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen, and perhaps the Chad Brown pair of Crowded Trade at 10-1 and Risk Taking at 15-1.
Midnight Bourbon had a poor start in the Derby and finished sixth, the first time in eight career races the striking son of Tiznow finished outside the top 3. Asmussen has been thrilled with his colt’s training and is expecting a big effort as he seeks his third Preakness win.
“Driving back to the barn from the grandstand (after a recent workout by the colt), I was thinking how crazy we are as horsemen,’’ Asmussen said. “It’s only less than two weeks from the disappointment of the Derby, and here I am, thinking I’m going to win a classic again and I get all giddy.”
Let’s not count out new Hall of Famer Todd Pletcher, who may have a longshot in Unbridled Honor, but this could be the year the trainer pulls off his first Preakness win. The maiden winner will be ridden by Luis Saez leaving from post 8 at 15-1.
“I feel like he’s moving forward, but he needs to make that jump to get it done in this race,” he said. “I think he fits the profile well of a horse who has good spacing between his last prep and this. It seems like he’s improving gradually. But historically, the horses coming out of the Derby are the ones you have to beat.”
The Pimlico scene
Maryland racing officials say about 10,000 spectators will be at the track, which can accommodate up to 120,000.
There will be no playing of “Maryland, My Maryland,’’ which lawmakers removed as the state song due to lyrics deemed offensive.
There is no general admission or standing room access. The infield scene will be limited – but food the Black-eyed Susan cocktail will be available.