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Preakness payday or doomsday?

Animal KingdomIt’s do or die for Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom this Saturday when he faces a full Preakness field in the hopes of keeping his Triple Crown bid alive. Some familiar faces are hot on his tail, from fan favorite Mucho Macho Man to the vanquished Derby favorite, Dialed In. It’s slated to be a thrilling renewal of Pimlico’s most celebrated race, as there is more than just Triple Crown hopes on the line for Animal Kingdom.

I can’t help feeling a particular amount of pressure this year about picking the Preakness winner, as I am on a 4-year win streak that I would like to keep intact. History has shown that overall, the winner of the Preakness proved to actually be the best horse in the race, while the Kentucky Derby offers up a greater chance of an upset with the 20-horse field and the variables of surviving the cavalry charge over the 1 ¼-mile distance. Thanks to the smaller field in the second jewel of the Triple Crown, the chances for the best horse to prevail is much greater, and therefore we must take a hard look at this year’s Preakness field to determine who exactly that is.

Is Animal Kingdom really the best colt in the 3-year-old crop, or was he the right horse at the right time to take advantage of a shockingly pedestrian pace in the Derby? Take nothing away from him, the son of Leroidesanimaux (BRZ) overcame his inexperience and laughed off his 20-1 odds to prove doubters wrong on the day it mattered most; he ran a perfect race in Kentucky and proved he could fly over conventional dirt at the classic distance. He is now 3 for 5 lifetime, and has never placed worse than second. He has been installed as the 2-1 favorite for the Preakness, though this jury is still out on him. If the race is run honestly at Pimlico, and there are a few nice speed horses to keep it that way, I cannot see Animal Kingdom having it all his way this time. Since his signature performance in Kentucky, Animal Kingdom has been living the life of royalty at placid Fair Hill Training Center. His trainer, Graham Motion, has decided the horse is doing so well at this Euro-esque paradise, he will not ship the Derby winner to Pimlico until the day of the race. Though I can’t say I know a thing about training horses, this move seems pretty risky, given all of the variables with what could go wrong in settling a horse in at the track the day he’s supposed to run a huge race.

For what it’s worth, Dialed In finished what his trainer called “probably the best eighth-place finish in Kentucky Derby history.” After being pinched back in the first few jumps of the race, the Derby favorite trailed the rear of the field rounding into the Clubhouse Turn, and was vanquished by a soft pace and a run that came too late. If the Preakness sets up like it’s supposed to, Dialed In will have plenty of speed to tackle in the stretch, and will have all the opportunity to bask in the glory of a $5-million dollar bonus from MI Developments, thanks to the horse’s wins in the Holy Bull and Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park. I was on him for the Derby, and I’m sticking with my pick for the Preakness.

There are only three horses in this entire 14-horse field that have won more than two times, and those horses are Animal Kingdom, Dialed In, and Concealed Identity. Concealed Identity, by Preakness winner Smarty Jones, actually has more wins than any other horse in the field (4), and has already won at Pimlico twice. He hasn’t kept the most prestigious company, racing only at Laurel and Pimlico, but with this crop’s unpredictability, it would not be a total surprise if this horse for the course sprung an upset, or at least ran in the money.

DerbyMucho Macho Man proved he deserved to be counted among the best in this 3-year-old division when he finished a strong third in the Kentucky Derby. A game horse in both this and his juvenile year, Mucho Macho Man should be a major contender in the Preakness, as well. This hardy horse always comes with his run, and if he hasn’t lost a step since the Kentucky Derby, the Risen Star winner will be in the money once again at Pimlico.

Other horses of interest in the Preakness are Shackleford, who faded to fourth in the Kentucky Derby in a nearly successful attempt to wire the field; Flashpoint, the winner of the Grade II Hutcheson; Midnight Interlude, the winner of the Santa Anita Derby; and Astrology, the winner of the Grade III Iroquois at Churchill Downs. With Flashpoint drawing the post next to Shackleford, these two should set up an honest pace, but don’t expect them to lead a kamikaze run around the oval.  

The Preakness holds the distinction of having heralded the future Eclipse Champion 3-year-old male or female for the past 10 years, as the winner of the middle jewel of the Triple Crown has proven to be the best of the crop. Will tradition continue with this year? So outstanding were the most recent winners of this race, it’s hard to see if that trend will carry on for 2011, as there really is no single superstar 3-year-old thanks to the fall of Uncle Mo. Perhaps this new star is waiting until Baltimore to make his career-defining performance, or maybe a familiar face will rise again to demand new respect.


The field for the 2011 Preakness Stakes (Post positions, morning-line odds, and notes)

1. Astrology (15-1) – Seems to be a mid-level horse. If he’s in peak condition, he will be a threat, but when push comes to shove, he has given up in his past races.
2. Norman Asbjornson (30-1) – Son of Real Quiet deserves a pronounceable name. Best finish in stakes company was 2nd in the Gotham over Toby’s Corner; don’t see him beating the best in this field.
3. King Congie (20-1) – Has never finished in the money on conventional dirt. Won three in a row before finishing 3rd in the Blue Grass. Robby Albarado is in the stirrups, looking for revenge.
4. Flashpoint (20-1) – Only has 3 lifetime starts, with one loss. Ran 4th in the Florida Derby; may be a better miler. Will be on or pressing the pace.
5. Shackleford (12-1) – Impressed in the Kentucky Derby by leading the field up until the final furlong. Game horse nearly stole the Florida Derby in the same fashion. I’m liking him more with every race, but don’t think he’ll get away with theft in the Preakness.
6. Sway Away (15-1) – The only horse in the field with only one win to his record. Ran big 3 starts back in the San Vicente to finish 2nd, but hasn’t posed a threat since.
7. Midnight Interlude (15-1) – His 1st time off the board was in the Kentucky Derby. Lightly-raced horse can only move up from here, but may need more experience to handle this adept field.
8. Dance City (12-1) – The 3rd-place finisher of the Arkansas Derby has never been worse than that showing. Seems to be getting a lot of support, but will need to be his career best to keep up his reputation here.
9. Mucho Macho Man (6-1) – 3M is the real contender deal. Lost a shoe in the Louisiana Derby and still finished 3rd, ran huge to finish 3rd in Kentucky. A lot to love about this horse. Macho Man Randy Savage is smiling down from Heaven on this bet.
10. Dialed In (9-2) – The vanquished hero should come with his biggest run at Pimlico. With $5 mill on the line, the Preakness could be his crowning achievement. Nothing to be ashamed of from his 8th-place finish in the Derby. I’m still on board the bandwagon.
11. Animal Kingdom (2-1) – Derby winner is said to be in perfect health, and training lights-out for his second TC challenge. Should be ready to run another huge race, but won’t have it as easily this time. He will be in the money, but not sure where.  
12. Isn’t He Perfect (30-1) – Definitely isn’t perfect. Has only run in the money 3 of 12 starts, has never placed in a stakes race, and there are a lot of horses in this race with much more upside. Toss.
13. Concealed Identity (30-1) – Intriguing contender with more wins than any other horse has won exactly 50% of his races. Seems to love Pimlico, so why not give him a chance?
14. Mr. Commons (20-1) – Has won 2 of 3 starts this year; last time out ran 3rd in a soft Santa Anita Derby. But he may not be the type of top-tier quality that wins the Preakness.

The 135th running of the Preakness Stakes will air live on NBC at 4:30pm ET. The undercard races will air live all-day on HRTV; Versus will begin airing coverage of the undercard races at 3pm ET.

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