Improbable, but maybe not so much when it comes to the $1.5 million Preakness Stakes (GI) on Saturday at Pimlico Race Course — especially now that Hall of Famers Bob Baffert and Mike Smith are teaming up again.
The dynamic duo will be reunited when Smith — who piloted Baffert’s Justify to the Triple Crown a year ago — climbs aboard Improbable for the 1 3/16-mile Preakness. Smith wound up riding longshot Cutting Humor, who finished 11th in last week’s controversial Kentucky Derby (GI), in which Maximum Security finished first but was DQ’d to 17th for interference and runner-up Country House was ruled the winner.
Now, Smith has a real chance to add another Classic to his resume. Improbable was the beaten Derby favorite (fifth and elevated to fourth), and was ridden for the first time by Irad Ortiz, Jr.
While Smith was winning the Arkansas Derby back on April 13 with Omaha Beach (who ended up being scratched from the Derby, leaving Smith to pick up a late ride), Jose Ortiz was aboard runner-up Improbable.
“When I get on a horse for the first time, that sometimes works well for me so maybe he’ll run his A or A-plus game this time,’’ said Smith, a winner of two Derbies, two Preaknesses and three Belmonts. “I’ve seen this horse from afar and behind, and I certainly think we haven’t seen his best race yet.”
Baffert, meanwhile, doesn’t show up at Pimlico without a Derby winner unless he believes he has a big shot at winning. His record proves it. He has seven Preakness winners from 1997-2018 (Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Point Given, War Emblem, Lookin’ At Lucky, American Pharoah and Justify. An eighth would set the record for most Preakness wins by a trainer (Baffert is tied with 19th century trainer Robert Wyndham Walden).
The two who did not come through in the Derby, but came back and won the Preakness were Point Given in 2001 (fifth after a rough-and-tumble Derby) and Lookin’ At Lucky in 2010 (sixth). Baffert felt confident he had a horse that could come back on just two weeks’ rest and take the second leg of the Triple Crown.
Can Improbable pull it off, too?
Improbable may not fit the Point Given mold since the big and powerful colt went on to win the Belmont, Haskell Invitational (G1) and the Travers (GI) and earn Horse of the Year honors. Lookin’ At Lucky went on to win the Haskell and the Indiana Derby (GII) before running fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (GI).
Improbable, though, won all three of his starts as a 2-year-old, and was second in his first two races (Rebel, Arkansas Derby) this year before the Derby. He was made the 5-2 favorite for the Preakness.
Like Point Given, Improbable is a big, long-striding colt who ran pretty well in the Derby. He came out of the race in great shape, according to Baffert, galloped well at Churchill Downs the other day and is headed to Baltimore for another try.
“He’s a really tough horse, and he never gave it up [in the Derby],” said Baffert. “He looks like he’s ready to go again, but there’ll be some nice, fresh horses there.”
Baffert believes the addition of Smith could make a difference.
“The Ortiz boys rode him fine. They just got beat,’’ said Baffert. “Sometimes, you just have to change it up. Can’t fire the trainer.’’
Baffert said he’d like to see Improbable start off a little faster than he did in the Derby.
“He has natural speed, and he’s got a really long stride,’’ he said. “But he doesn’t gather it up quick enough. We put blinkers on him and it helped in the race, but not at the gate.”
With a field of 13 for the Preakness, the field will have six less horses than the Derby. The first four across the line in the Derby aren’t running: Country House, Maximum Security, Code of Honor and Tacitus. Baffert’s other two star 3-year-olds, Game Winner and Roadster, are out too. And so is Omaha Beach, the Derby morning-line favorite scratched a few days before the race.
Joked Baffert one morning Churchill Downs after overseeing Improbable take to the track: “I need somebody that can win on that horse.”