May 17 (UPI) -- With no Triple Crown on the line -- and if we can ignore pending court action resulting from the Kentucky Derby -- this year's Preakness Stakes seems much more a "normal" race than usual, and a pretty good one, at that.
For the first time since 1951, none of the top three finishers from Louisville will reappear in Baltimore. As a result, the 13 contenders for Saturday's race took their time filtering onto the Pimlico backstretch, leaving plenty of time for washing down crab cakes with a frosty Natty Boh.
More to the point, much of the field is composed of horses who haven't suffered through full range of Triple Crown preps. While there always are some "new shooters" in the Preakness, this year that description fits nine of the 13.
"That's what makes it different," said Bob Baffert, trainer of the morning-line favorite, Improbable. "Coming in here, you want to knock the Derby favorite off. So this is a different feeling."
Improbable, a City Zip colt, finished fifth at Churchill Downs with a mild late rally, then was placed fourth. Before that, he was a close second behind Omaha Beach in the Grade I Arkansas Derby and a close second behind Long Range Toddy in a division of the Grade II Rebel, also at Oaklawn Park.
"Improbable, he's a really good horse," Baffert said when asked to compare him to his six previous Preakness winners. "But he's gotten beat in his last three outs. So those horses came in her with a little bit stronger credentials."
About Saturday's race, Baffert said, "I think what we've got here is a lot of parity. I think that's why we have such a big field. It's wide open."
War of Will, the main victim of the Derby traffic problems, drew the same dreaded No. 1 hole for the Preakness that he was assigned in Louisville, where he finished eighth after the interference before being advanced to seventh. He's the 4-1 second choice on the line despite the draw.
The others advancing from the Derby are Win Win Win, who finished 10th, and Bodexpress (14th).
The local favorite among the "new shooters" is Alwaysmining, winner of six straight races, all down the road at Laurel Park. In his most recent start, the Stay Thirsty gelding, trained by Kelly Rubley, won the Federico Tessio, a "win and you're in" for the Preakness. Laughing Fox won an automatic berth with a victory in the Oaklawn Invitational in his last outing.
This year's Preakness also promises to be very different from last year's, weather-wise. Remember the field spinning out of the fog, splashing into the stretch before Justify eked out his victory? This year, the weatherman is calling for partly cloudy skies and a high near 80.
"It's nice to finally see some good weather here," Baffert said Thursday. But what are the odds of that prediction hitting the mark?
And ... there's lots more action around the country this weekend. Here's the merest peek:
The Oaks bunch
Point of Honor, Cookie Dough, Always Shopping and Brill catch the handicapper's eye in the nine-filly field set for Friday's $250,000 Grade II Black-Eyed Susan at Pimlico. Point of Honor, a Curlin filly, and Cookie Dough, by Bretheren, finished fourth and third, respectively, in the Grade II Gulfstream Park Oaks but Point of Honor gets a narrow nod on the morning line. Always Shopping, an Awesome Again filly, won the Busanda and the Grade II Gazelle at Aqueduct in her last two starts. Brill was a good third in the Grade III Fantasy at Oaklawn Park. Among the long shots, Las Setas has won four straight races, all at Laurel Park, but steps into a bit deeper waters.
You couldn't ask for a more wide-open race than Friday's $300,000 Grade III Pimlico Special, the co-feature on Black-Eyed Susan day at Pimlico. With 14 set to go 1 1/4 miles, the favorite at 9-2 is Rally Cry, a 6-year-old son of Uncle Mo who exits a fourth-place finish in the Grade II Charles Town Classic. Among his main rivals is War Story, a 7-year-old Northern Afleet gelding who was third in that rich West Virginia heat. Also look for Tenfold, a Curlin colt who finished third in last year's foggy Preakness, just 3/4 length shy of Justify. You're to Blame, a 5-year-old by Distorted Humor, is in excellent form, will have no issues with the distance and defeated War Story by a neck in the Greenwood Cup at Parx Racing last fall but drew gate No. 13.
Saturday's $100,000 Sir Barton Stakes for 3-year-olds at Pimlico is a totally fascinating match of six totally differently situated colts and geldings. Four of them are locals. One, Top Line Growth, is the morning-line favorite after only one previous start -- that a 9 1/2-lengths victory at Laurel Park for trainer Kelly Rubley. Another from the home team, Trifor Gold, finished second in the Federico Tessio in his last start, albeit 11 1/2 lengths back of Preakness contender Alwaysmining. The visitors are the Todd Pletcher-trained King for a Day, last seen in November finishing a good fourth in the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club behind Preakness entrant Signalman, and Tone Broke, sent to Dubai by trainer Steve Asmussen early in the Meydan season where he finished six, beaten 20 3/4 lengths in the Al Bastakiya Trial and 14th, beaten 60 1/4 lengths in the Al Bastakiya itself.
Bold Script, Souper Charlotte and Power Gal are the favorites among just five entered for Saturday's $125,000 (Canadian) Grade III Selene Stakes at Woodbine. Bold Script, an Ontario-bred Speightstown filly, won the Princess Elizabeth over the all-weather course in her 2-year-old finale. Souper Charlotte, a daughter of Warrior's Reward, was 2-for-2 last year at Woodbine, winning the Glorious Song Nov. 11. And Japanese-bred Power Gal, an Empire Maker filly, comes off a third in the local Star Shoot Stakes April 21.
Catholic Boy and Inspector Lynley drew the outside gates in a field of 12 for Saturday's $250,000 Grade II Dixie at Pimlico. The race is 1 1/16 miles on the grass. Catholic Boy, a 4-year-old More Than Ready colt, is 4-for-5 on the green course with one of those wins in the Grade I Belmont Derby. He also won last year's Grade I Travers on the main course at Saratoga. Inspector Lynley, a 6-year-old son of Lemon Drop Kid, has spent his entire career on the grass, finishing in the money in 15 of 24 starts. A question mark in this field is Paret, a 5-year-old who makes his first start outside Australia. He was trained down under by Chris Waller, who had more success with Winx than with Paret.
Back at Churchill Downs, a wide-open field of seven is in prospect for Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Louisville Stakes at 1 1/2 miles. Soglio is a bare favorite on the morning line despite his recent 10th-place finish in the Grade II Dixiana Elkhorn at Keeneland. Others in with a chance here include Vettori Kin, Shahroze, Nessy and Tiz a Slam. Go figure.
Filly & Mare Turf
Chad Brown will saddle two of the 14 3-year-old fillies entered for Friday's $100,000, 1-mile Hilltop Stakes at Pimlico. And, surprise! They're the favorites. Topping the morning line is Nova Sol, a German-bred filly by Soldier Hollow who had a win and two thirds from three starts against decent company in France as a juvenile. She makes her first U.S. start, which is a good angle for Brown's charges. Her stablemate, Dogtag, won the P.G. Johnson Stakes at the Spa last year, her best showing from three starts, and makes her 2019 debut. Others make the transition from the main track -- notably Orra Moor, an Orb filly who finished fourth in the Grade III Fantasy at turf-less Oaklawn Park in her last start.
Nine are signed up for Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Galorette at Pimlico, going 1 1/16 miles on the grass. The favorites, Inflexibility and I'm So Fancy, drew gates No. 1 and No. 2, respectively but should not be duly inconvenienced given their forwardly placed running styles. Inflexibility, a 5-year-old Scat Daddy mare, hasn't won in more than a year while competing at the top level. I'm So Fancy, a 5-year-old, Irish-bred mare by Raaj, makes her first U.S. start after some relatively impressive wins against top competition in Ireland and France.
On Saturday at Old Hilltop, Ickymasho is the 8-5 favorite on the morning line for the $100,000 Searching Stakes, 1 1/2 miles on the turf. The British-bred mare was second by a head in two Grade III events at Gulfstream Park this winter, then won the Grade III Bewitch at Keeneland on her way north. Among the others, Osare could be dangerous off an eight-months break following a win in the Dueling Grounds Oaks at Kentucky Downs.
There aren't many solid favorites on Friday's card at Pimlico but it's tough to look past Bound for Nowhere in the $100,000 Jim McKay Turf Sprint. With the exception of a clunker in the Grade I Shadwell Turf Mile at Keeneland last fall, the 5-year-old son of The Factor has been rock solid of late for trainer Wesley Ward. The record includes a third-place finish, beaten only 3/4 length, in last year's Group 1 Diamond Jubilee at Royal Ascot -- doubtless the destination next month given a good run here. Potential upsetters among the nine rivals are Pure Sensation and locally based Completed Pass.
On Saturday at Pimlico, Ward showcases Jo Jo Air, a 3-year-old Scat Daddy filly, in the $100,000, 5-furlongs The Very One Stakes. Jo Jo Air won the William Walker Stakes at the same conditions last month at Churchill Downs and, knowing Ward's fondness for morning dress and meeting Her Majesty, another good effort would lead to Ascot-ish speculation.
At Belmont Park, Stillwater Cove is the narrowest of favorites in Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Soaring Softly Stakes 3-year-old fillies at 7 furlongs on the grass. The Quality Road miss has two wins and a second from six starts but was soundly thumped in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf Sprint last fall. It's a field of nine and the oddsmaker basically could toss out only two so it promises to be an interesting heat.
Mucho Gusto is backed with mucho gusto in Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Lazaro Barrera Stakes for 3-year-olds at Santa Anita, 7 furlongs on the dirt. The Mucho Macho Man colt has three wins, a second and a third from six starts for trainer Bob Baffert and cuts back in distance after fading from the lead to finish third in the Grade III Sunland Park Derby in New Mexico. Notably, he was second to Preakness favorite Improbable in the Grade I Los Alamitos Cash Call Futurity last fall.
Lewisfield is the morning-line pick in a well-matched field of seven for Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Maryland Sprint at Pimlico. The 5-year-old Great Notion gelding has been most successful against fellow Maryland-breds but exits a fading second in an open sprint stakes at Laurel in his last outing. Not thrilled with him? Wentz, Pro Forma and first-time gelding Always Sunshine could be attractive options.
Filly & Mare Sprint
A full field of lightly raced 3-year-old fillies lines up for Friday's $150,000 Grade III Adena Springs Miss Preakness Stakes at Pimlico. The narrow morning-line favorite is Covfefe, an Into Mischief filly who started her year with an impressive win at Keeneland April 6. Please Flatter Me is 3-for-3 sprinting. Never Enough Time has won both previous starts. Sue's Fortune makes her 3-year-old debut after winning the Grade II Adirondack at Saratoga and finishing up the track in the Grade I Frizette at Belmont last summer.
Five signed on for Sunday's $100,000 Grade III Desert Stormer for fillies and mares at Santa Anita. It's 6 furlongs on the main track and four of the five have graded stakes experience.