It should come as no surprise that so few Kentucky Derby participants were willing to wheel back in two weeks for the Grade 1, $1.5 million Preakness Stakes, given that this was one of the most formful Derbies in recent memory. Indeed, the first four finishers in the wagering filled out the superfecta in order of their odds, with favored Nyquist coming out on top.
Aside from Nyquist and Exaggerator, only ninth-place finisher Lani is making the trip to Baltimore after exiting the Kentucky Derby. The rest of the field has been filled out by new shooters. A few were Derby trail disappointments that did not earn enough points to make it into the starting gate on the first Saturday in May. Others never had the Derby on their radar and are just now attempting to step up in class, sensing an opportunity here, with so many of the elite three-year-olds deciding to pass this race.
Pace was a major factor in the outcome of the Kentucky Derby. The race featured a very fast pace that almost collapsed late, allowing for some closers to make up a significant amount of ground in the stretch. We say “almost” because Nyquist and, to a lesser extent, Gun Runner were the only horses that were able to overcome such taxing early fractions. While the inclination might be to upgrade Nyquist’s performance heading into this race, a very similar scenario could play out once again.
There is a lot of speed signed on for this Preakness. The Pace Projector is predicting a fast pace, to be set by the maiden Laoban (#8). Nyquist (#3) heads up the second flight of runners, which also includes Uncle Lino (#2), Collected (#7), and Abiding Star (#9). This would appear to set the table for Exaggerator (#5), as well as for any other late runners looking to crash the superfecta. (For further analysis of the Preakness Pace, read this piece from Chief Figure Maker Craig Milkowski.)
Let’s go through the field:
#1, Cherry Wine (20/1): Following a visually impressive allowance win in January, this colt was given a couple of chances to make the Kentucky Derby. While he did not run badly in either prep, he didn’t quite earn enough points to get into the starting gate at Churchill Downs. Some of the positives with this Dale Romans trainee are that his speed figures are heading in the right direction and his closing running style should be well-suited to a race that is predicted to feature a fast pace. He even handled a sloppy track as a two-year-old, which may very well come into play on Preakness day. The only knock we have against him is that he may just not be good enough. He got favorable paces to close into in both the Rebel and Blue Grass and still found a few others better than he. Most notably, the horses that defeated him in the Blue Grass were no match for Nyquist or Exaggerator in the Kentucky Derby. We’ll primarily use him underneath, on the bottom rungs of the superfecta.
#2, Uncle Lino (30/1): One of four sons of Uncle Mo in this race, he was another runner that did not make the cutoff for the Kentucky Derby. However, unlike Cherry Wine, he got a race in three weeks after his final Derby prep, winning a listed stakes at Los Alamitos. He actually ran fairly well two races back, in the Santa Anita Derby, chasing the fast pace set by Danzing Candy before getting blown away by Exaggerator in the stretch. Still, the 113 and 114 speed figures that he’s earned in his last two starts make him faster than much of this Preakness field. Like Nyquist, he’s a stalker that must avoid getting caught up in what is likely to be a fast pace. He’s worthy of superfecta inclusion.
#3, Nyquist (3/5):
The first undefeated Kentucky Derby winner since Smarty Jones will be seeking his ninth consecutive victory while attempting to win the second jewel of the Triple Crown, potentially putting him in position to become the thirteenth Triple Crown winner. There’s no denying that this horse ran the best race in the Derby. He survived a very fast pace, easily put away Gun Runner at the top of the stretch, and held off the late charge of Exaggerator. The effort was good enough to earn him a 123 speed figure, four points higher than Exaggerator’s best lifetime performance, and nearly 10 points higher than what anyone else in this field has accomplished. The beauty of Nyquist is that he’s not only fast, but he’s quite versatile. In last fall’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, he was perfectly content to rate about three or four lengths off the pace before unleashing a wide rally to the lead at the top of the stretch. That tractability should serve him well in a race featuring a lot of speed runners, the majority of which are drawn to his outside. Mario Gutierrez will probably have to use him a little bit out of the gate so as to avoid getting a ton of dirt (or mud) kicked back in his face. We also don’t know how the track condition will affect him, since the only time he raced over less-than-fast ground was in his wire-to-wire Florida Derby victory. Yet these are minor concerns at best. This horse has an excellent chance to win the Preakness. The only real question that remains is one of value, since his 3/5 morning line price is slightly lower than we’d be inclined to take, especially given the presence of a legitimate foe in Exaggerator.
#4, Awesome Speed (30/1): He’s an admirable sort, having won four of his six lifetime starts, the last via disqualification when he was legitimately put up over Governor Malibu. That one came back with a strong effort in the Peter Pan at Belmont last weekend, earning a 112 speed figure. That said, Awesome Speed has never recorded a figure above 102 and is highly questionable at this nine and a half furlong distance. He’s not for us.
#5, Exaggerator (3/1):
At a time when even the elite three-year-olds are raced so sparingly, it’s refreshing to encounter a horse like Exaggerator, who made his 10th lifetime start in the Kentucky Derby, after having competed in eight straight graded stakes races dating back to August of his two-year-old season. All of that racing has apparently had no ill effects on this son of Curlin, since he’s continued to improve his speed figures with each start as a three-year-old. He entered the Kentucky Derby with the best last-out speed figure of 118 for his blowout win in the Santa Anita Derby. His connections tried something new that day, taking him well off the pace in the early going before launching one sustained run from the back of the pack. It worked wonders that day, and they stuck to that plan in the Kentucky Derby. While he did encounter some traffic trouble around the three-eighths pole at Churchill Downs, Kent Desormeaux did a great job working him out into the clear by the time the field reached the top of the stretch. He unleashed a furious rally, making up many lengths on Nyquist through the final quarter mile, but fell just over a length short. So what’s different today? For one thing, Exaggerator loves a wet track, having run especially well over sealed surfaces in both the Delta Jackpot and Santa Anita Derby. As of Thursday morning, there’s an 80% chance of rain in Baltimore on Saturday. Additionally, Exaggerator is going to get a fast pace to close into once again, and, facing this small field, he is unlikely to encounter the traffic issues that hampered him on Derby Day. Nyquist is undefeated, but he’s not invincible. Value still matters, and if Nyquist is going off at 3/5 while Exaggerator is 3/1, as the morning line suggests, we will be betting the Derby runner-up.
#6, Lani (30/1): Lani was the talk of Louisville heading into the Kentucky Derby, more for his unusual morning antics than about his chances to actually win the race. Considering all that he was up against, Lani’s performance in the Derby was fairly respectable. He finished ninth, beating over half the field. After getting away from the gate slowly, he lagged far back in the early going. Yutaka Take guided him outside of horses exiting the backstretch, which resulted in his losing a lot of ground around the far turn as he raced four-to five-wide before getting spun out even farther as he bore out into the stretch. Stamina does not appear to be an issue for this colt, and his plodding style may actually fit with the dynamics of this race. Furthermore, he’s handled wet tracks in Japan, so rain should not be a concern, and by all accounts, he’s been much better behaved training at Belmont in recent weeks. We doubt he’s good enough to actually beat Nyquist or Exaggerator, but Lani is very much in the mix to round out the trifecta in this Preakness, and his price should be generous.
#7, Collected (12/1): This Bob Baffert trainee was steered off the Derby trail after a disappointing fourth place finish in the Southwest earlier this winter. Targeting easier spots, he racked up visually impressive scores at Sunland Park and in the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland. His connections have had the Preakness in their sights for some time now, and he’s done nothing wrong on his way to getting here. However, he’s another runner with speed in a race loaded with pace players. Furthermore, he still has some stamina questions to answer, since winning a nine furlong ungraded stakes at Sunland Park is not quite as demanding as competing in one of the major Derby preps. He’s far from impossible, but we get the feeling that he and Stradivari are going to be two of the shorter prices in this race despite the fact that they have not run significantly faster than many of the other fringe players. We think there are more interesting horses to use underneath at bigger prices.
#8, Laoban (30/1):
While the Pace Projector is predicting that he will be racing on a clear lead in the early going, it is somewhat interesting that his connections are removing the blinkers today. However, even if they’re successful in getting Laoban to relax early, there are plenty of other frontrunners that would be more than willing to take up the running and still ensure that this is an honestly run race. Whatever the tactics, this colt is not without a chance in the Preakness. Of the two horses coming out of the Blue Grass, he certainly ran the better race than Cherry Wine. He was sent hard to the lead, laid down quick fractions, and fought off the favorite, Zulu, in upper stretch before getting swallowed up by the closers in the last furlong. A mile and three-sixteenths may be a stretch for him, but others have to answer similar questions. There are others that we find more attractive, but we still wouldn’t be surprised to see him still in the hunt as the field turns for home.
#9, Abiding Star (30/1): It isn’t wise to underestimate horses that are in great form, especially when their confidence is high. That has to be the case with Abiding Star, who comes into this race riding a five-race winning streak. That said, it wasn’t until two starts ago that he took his game to the next level. Facing a decent group of seasoned older runners, this colt basically ran off midway through the race and never looked back, drawing off to an impressive score while earning a 114 speed figure, tied for the fastest race run by any of these runners not named Nyquist or Exaggerator. It seems like a wet track would only better his chances. We wouldn’t be surprised if he challenged Laoban for the early lead and could even see him as the one speed that’s still trying to fend off Nyquist approaching the quarter pole. Essentially, we think he sports a very similar profile to Stradivari, except he’s going to be about three or four times the price of that one. That’s good enough for us to throw him into our exotic wagers.
#10, Fellowship (30/1): We put him in the same category as Cherry Wine. His running style gives him an outside chance at running into the superfecta, but we believe there are many more talented runners in this race. We also would have expected a little more from him in his first start out of Mark Casse’s barn last time, but the trainer switch really didn’t seem to move him forward. The prospect of a wet track may present an additional concern, since he didn’t appear to handle very wet going as a two-year-old.
#11, Stradivari (10/1):
This is the horse that seemingly everyone is hoping will emerge as the primary challenger to Nyquist and Exaggerator. He was visually impressive when running off to a 14-length victory last time at Keeneland and people took notice, with some even conceding the Preakness to him before the Derby had even been run. So can he live up to the hype and prove that he is just as good as the first two finishers in the Kentucky Derby? We’re doubtful. For one thing, he’s never faced a field of this quality. The race rating of his allowance win was a 105, whereas the race rating of the Preakness is a 117. That’s a pretty significant leap up in class. Furthermore, he hasn’t actually run that fast yet. Due to the relatively moderate pace he was allowed to set, his speed figure did not come back all that fast. The 113 that he earned makes him no faster than horses like Laoban and Abiding Star, who are going to go off at much higher prices. Finally, he’s never had to deal with the kind of early speed that he’ll encounter in this race and may have to adopt new tactics while trying to come from off the pace. Given all of these obstacles and the inevitable lack of value, we’re completely leaving him off our tickets.
While Nyquist (#3) might have the slight edge over the Derby runner-up in terms of raw ability, we believe that EXAGGERATOR (#5) will offer better value given the likelihood of a hotly contested pace and the possibility of a wet track. There should not be that great of a disparity in odds between these two.
#5, Exaggerator, at odds of 5/2 or higher
5 with 3,6
3,5 with 3,5 with 1,6,8,9
5 with 1,6,8,9 with 3
5 with 3 with 2,7,10
3,5 with 3,5 with 1,6,8,9 with 1,2,6,7,8,9,10
5 with 3 with 2,7,10 with 1,6,8,9