CRAWFORD | With eight starters, Preakness becomes a chess match for jockeys
BALTIMORE (WDRB) — It seems that the 140th Preakness Stakes and the latest quest for horse racing's Triple Crown will lie in the hands of the contestants we've heard from the least this week -- and I'm not talking about the horses.
With a field of only eight headed to post for the Preakness on Saturday, the performance and decision-making of the jockeys will be at a premium. And with jockeys racing at various tracks around the country in advance of the second jewel of the Triple Crown, horse racing will once again throw one of its biggest parties without some of the most important players getting in on the hype.
Regardless, American Pharoah, the 4-5 favorite, is in the hands of perhaps the hottest jockey in the nation today, winner of three of the past four Triple Crown races, Victor Espinoza. He'll break from the No. 1 post, with his stablemate, Dortmund, and jockey Martin Garcia right beside him.
D. Wayne Lukas not only got an ownership change for Mr. Z, but changed jockeys. Ramon Vazquez is off, and the experienced Corey Nakatani is aboard.
On the outside, third-choice Firing Line has Hall of Famer Gary Stevens in the saddle, with another Preakness winner, Javier Castellano, on fourth-choice Divining Rod, who did not run in the Kentucky Derby.
American Pharoah, Firing Line and Dortmund not only ran 1-2-3 in the Derby, they were 1-2-3 at every fractional call. They could well make the Preakness another three-horse race.
“You've got Martin, who knows Dortmund extremely well and he also knows American Pharoah (from being his exercise rider),” Stevens said. “He's extremely aware of how fast he's going, and the same with me on Firing Line, and Victor knows American Pharoah extremely well. We've got a very good idea of how we're going at every split of the race, and all three of these horses are very tactical.”
Plans are one thing. Every trainer has a plan, or ideal scenario, heading into every race. But when the gate opens, the ultimate decision goes to the rider. A lot of time this week has been spent speculating on what the riders on Bob Baffert's two horses, American Pharoah and Dortmund, will do, given those inside post positions, not to mention, Mr. Z, a horse with a reputation for running unpredictably, right outside of them.
“I don't fret the race,” Baffert said. “My job is to get the saddle on them, make sure they don't get stirred up, fine tune them, get them prepared the way we want them prepared. The jockeys are figuring the race out themselves. I think once you break, you have to have a plan. They'll have Plan A and Plan B, and hopefully won't have to use Plan C. They know their horses, and they're the professionals in that. So I probably won't get involved in that part of it too much.”
Norm Casse, assistant trainer for Danzig Moon, a late-closing colt who struggled with traffic in the Kentucky Derby but came away looking ready for more, said he expects Baffert's colts to have to exert themselves more in the early going in the Preakness.
“I would have to assume that if American Pharoah breaks good, I can't imagine that they don't send him and put him on the lead,” Casse said. “And then you're going to have Firing Line sitting right next to him pressing him the whole time. . . . Come Saturday, the three horses that we're all watching, they're all going to watch each other. I think the pace will be a little hotter this time. They're not going to let American Pharoah go walk the dog up front. And we're going to be sitting right behind there and hopefully pick up the pieces late.”
Firing Line, from his outside post, would appear to have more options. Stevens calculated what his horse needed to do after back-to-back close losses to Dortmund at Santa Anita Park, before beating him in the Derby. He'll hope to overcome American Pharoah in the same way on Saturday.
“My horse has now been in three big battles, and he seems to relish it,” Stevens said. “He likes the competition. And I think you can fairly ask, how is American Pharoah going to recover from this tough race, because believe me, it was not an easy race for any of these three. Yes we got past Dortmund, and it was starting to feel a little bit like Alydar and Affirmed, and we faced two Affirmeds instead of one in the Derby. Hopefully we can turn the tables. But believe me, I have plenty of respect for all these horses.”
And Baffert has lots of respect for Stevens. He's used Stevens as a jockey, and knows the kind of professionalism and insight he brings to the track.
“Gary is a really smart rider,” Baffert said. “He is one of the very few riders who can ride a horse one time and tell you how it needs to be ridden, or make a difference the next time. He can figure them out just being on them one time. A lot of riders can't do that, a lot of really great riders can't do that. So he's tough, and knows what he wants to do. He'll will them to get in and beat you. So he's dangerous.”
But American Pharoah's competitors don't take for granted that his first tough victory will take something out of him. In fact, Lukas said he expects the Kentucky Derby winner to be even better on Saturday.
“He won the Kentucky Derby without his ‘A' game,” Lukas said. “That's saying something. I think he'll come out and run a bigger race. We'll see if anyone else can beat him.”
Among the “new shooters” to the Preakness, Lexington Stakes winner Divining Rod could have the best chance. Owned by Roy and Gretchen Jackson, the owners of Barbaro, he rested for the Derby and in the Lexington showed the ability to come from off the lead for the first time.
Still, it's American Pharoah and Firing Line who have the ability to stage a special duel, with Dortmund involved in the mix, too.
“They've been trading punches all along,” Baffert said of the horses. “Pharoah had to work to get by Firing Line. . . . It's really competitive. These 3-year-olds, they're a very nice group. But the great horses find a way, we'll see if we have one on Saturday.”
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