Of course, I’m picking my Kentucky Derby hero, American Pharoah, to repeat in today’s Preakness Stakes, but it’s not going to be easy for him.
Firing Line and Dortmund will test him this afternoon, just as they did in the Derby, when they finished second and third, respectively. Firing Line was exceptionally game in defeat, while front-running Dortmund’s first career loss only happened when he weakened late in the Derby, which is a sixteenth of a mile longer than today’s Preakness.
My picks, in order of preference, hoping for my 10th Preakness winner in the last 15 years:
American Pharoah — The key to his chance of adding the Preakness in pursuit of the first Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978 is determining what effect his hard race in the Derby will have. Will he benefit from that experience and move forward, or did that battle take something out of him and he’ll show the effects today?
The only legitimate knock on American Pharoah heading into the Derby was that he had yet to be battle-tested. He’d won four straight after finishing a tiring fifth in his debut last year, but none of the victories were close. The Derby was, and American Pharoah should get extra credit because he was wide on the first turn breaking from an outside post and even wider on the far turn.
Jockey Victor Espinoza asked American Pharoah for everything he had at the top of the stretch trying to run down the two horses in front of him — Dortmund and Firing Line. American Pharoah was all out to beat Firing Line by a length. But he did beat him, and American Pharoah appeared to be edging away late. Given how wide he was on both turns, he proved he was clearly the best 3-year-old in the Derby.
Can he do it again in the Preakness?
With his tactical early speed, American Pharoah can set up wherever Espinoza wants him. That’s a huge plus, especially with the small field for the Preakness. It’s possible the Derby scenario will play out the same way today, with American Pharoah in prime stalking position just off the leaders. When Espinoza asks him for his best, American Pharoah can get the job done again.
If he wins the Preakness, American Pharoah will give trainer Bob Baffert his fourth shot at a Triple Crown, following Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998) and War Emblem (2002).
I think he will. Then we’ll have three full weeks to decide if American Pharoah can handle the mile-and-a-half Belmont Stakes and become just the fourth Triple Crown champion since Citation in 1948 and only the 12th in racing history.
Firing Line — What’s not to like about this guy who shadowed Dortmund the entire way? He avenged his two narrow losses to Dortmund, each by a head, by beating him by two lengths in the Derby. His gutty performance, in an effort that might have been good enough to win other Derbies, made him 2-for-6 lifetime with four seconds. He, too, boasts tactical speed and figures to be an absolute handful today.
Dortmund — He won his first six races before setting a moderate, though pressured, pace in the Derby, and tiring late to third. Will jockey Martin Garcia change tactics today? Dortmund won his first three starts from off the pace. Either way, he’s accomplished too much in his career already to think he won’t be a huge factor again, today. And he might be overlooked a bit.
Danzig Moon — After traffic problems early, Danzig Moon did well to finish fifth in the Derby. But his only victory in six career starts was when he broke his maiden four starts back. He has a shot, and he’ll be a fair price. But it’s difficult to imagine him being good enough to beat the top three.
Divining Rod — He appears to be much the best of the three new faces in the Preakness. His three-length victory in the Grade III Lexington at Keeneland made him 2-for-5 with one second and a pair of thirds, one of them when he finished 71⁄2 lengths behind Kentucky Derby disappointment Carpe Diem in the Grade II Tampa Bay Derby.
Mr. Z — He looked overmatched in the Kentucky Derby, so why would he be able to knock off the same horses two weeks later?
Bodhisattva — Easy for you to say. He’s 3-for-11, including a length-and-a-half victory in the $100,000 Federico Tesio Stakes at Pimlico in his last start. That gives him the home-court advantage today, but will it matter? In his only appearance in a graded stakes, he was a distant fifth at 114-1 in the Grade II Remsen last November at Aqueduct.
Tale of Verve — He won a maiden race by two lengths at 3-5 at Keeneland in his last start. Good for him.