By Richard Rosenblatt
Once again, Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert is on the cusp of setting another remarkable record in horse racing – should he win the $1 million Preakness (G1) for the eighth time. Of course, he’ll be saddling the 9-5 morning-line favorite Authentic, who just happened to win the Kentucky Derby (G1) on Sept. 5.
Saturday’s Preakness is so much different this year: the COVID-19 pandemic reshuffled the racing calendar with the Preakness serving as the final leg of the Triple Crown — the Belmont Stakes (G1) was the first leg on June 20.
Authentic, along with stablemate Thousand Words, give Baffert two shots at Preakness win No. 8, which would move him ahead of 19th century trainer Robert Wyndham Walden. Baffert is looking to go 6-for-6 when he sends his Derby winner into what historically has been the second leg of the Triple Crown, and just two weeks after a Derby run on the first Saturday in May.
“Two weeks, though. It was two weeks. We’ve got a month now,” Baffert, who has two Triple Crown champions in American Pharoah and Justify, explained. “I would have loved to run two weeks later because he [Authentic] was just full of himself two weeks afterward. It’s just giving horses time to freshen up. You have new shooters now. It’s so turned around now.”
Nonetheless, Baffert is happy to be in Baltimore for the Preakness for the 19th time. And why wouldn’t he? His winning percentage in the race is superlative. Try this: If he wins the Preakness, with Authentic or Thousand Words (6-1), his record will be 8-for-the-19-years he’s had a horse/horses in the race. And he’d raise his “batting’’ average from .388 to .421 – not too many .400 hitters around these days, especially in Baltimore.
“I feel real good about it. I think he [Authentic] is going to run his race,’’ Baffert said. “He hasn’t regressed. He looks great.”
A bit more intrigue was added when trainer Kenny McPeek entered his star filly Swiss Skydiver to take on Baffert’s duo as well as second-betting choice Art Collector (5-2), a horse that beat the filly in the Blue Grass (G2).
“She continues to do good. She continues to impress us every day,’’ McPeek said. “She eats great. You can’t have fear. We’d like to get the big prize, and here we are.”
Swiss Skydiver, winner of the Alabama (G1) and second in the Kentucky Oaks (G1) after her loss in the Blue Grass, has a chance to become the sixth filly to win the Preakness, and the first since Rachel Alexandra in 2009.
Like Authentic, Swiss Skydiver likes to be at or near the front of the pack. A field of 11 was entered Monday, with post time scheduled for 5:36 p.m. ET.
The field includes three entries from Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen, who is seeking his third Preakness win (Curlin in 2007 and Rachel Alexandra are the others): Excession at 30-1; Max Player at 15-1 and Pneumatic at 20-1.
Other contenders include Tom Drury-trained Art Collector, 4-0 this year and scratched before the Derby with a minor foot injury, and Mr. Big News (12-1), who ran a surprising third in the Derby at 46-1 for trainer Bret Calhoun.
Asmussen believes Max Player is on the upswing after taking over as trainer for Linda Rice and sending him out to a fifth-place finish in the Derby. The gray colt won the Withers (G3), then finished third in the Belmont and Travers (G1), behind winner Tiz the Law both times.
Excession hasn’t run since a second-place finish to Nadal in the Rebel Stakes (G2) on March 14. Pneumatic, a son of Uncle Mo, seems to be a wise-guy choice among handicappers as the race grows closer, having won the Pegasus Stakes at Monmouth Park on Aug. 15, and training well into this classic.
Most of the field arrived at Pimlico on Tuesday, and have gotten a chance to get familiar with the track
“Both horses are doing fine. They both look good out here,” Baffert said after he watched morning gallops. “This track is so soft. You just don’t hear them. I’ve always loved this surface here.”
Due to strict COVID-19 health and safety restrictions, no spectators will be at the track during Preakness weekend, with only essential personnel, including employees, jockeys, trainers and owners, on site. All will be required to undergo health checks.
With so many health and travel restrictions, several of the nation’s top jockeys will not be riding in the Preakness. While New York-based Hall of Famer John Velazquez rides Authentic and Florent Geroux is aboard Thousand Words, four local riders picked up Preakness mounts: Sheldon Russell (Excession); Jevian Toledo (Jesus’ Team); Horacio Karamanos (Ny Traffic); and Trevor McCarthy (Liveyourbeastlife). Among those without Preakness mounts are Irad Ortiz, Jr., and brother Jose Ortiz, Hall of Famer Javier Castellano, Joel Rosario, and Hall of Famer Mike Smith.
While Baffert said it would have been better to run a delayed Triple Crown in its usual order of Derby-Preakness-Belmont, he’s OK with the way it’s all turned out – so far.
“It would have conflicted with the Breeders’ Cup for the 3-year-olds,” Baffert said of the two-day Breeders’ Cup races Nov. 6-7. “I still think it would been a great scenario. I just feel fortunate that we even have this. It was looking pretty bleak.”
In Baltimore for a few days now, Baffert says there’s really no Preakness buzz.
“It doesn’t feel like Preakness, but it will the day of,’’ he said. “It’s like the Kentucky Derby. It didn’t feel like Derby that day, but when that gate came open it felt like Derby. All you are hoping for is that your horses show up and when they turn for home you’re hoping you have something to root for. That’s it. That’s all you can ask for.”