Courier-Journal’s Jason Frakes breaks down why Maximum Security and Country House are not racing at Preakness.
Despite the controversy still swirling around this year’s Kentucky Derby finish, there was a brief hope in the aftermath of that race that the Preakness Stakes might be a prime beneficiary of the increased attention on horse racing.
Instead, owner Gary West decided to take his ball and go home with Maximum Security, the horse that finished first in the Derby but was disqualified for interference. And with de facto Derby winner Country House out of training while being treated for a minor illness, it’s probably going to be months before either horse gets a chance at redemption.
But as delicious as a rematch would have been between Maximum Security and Country House along with War of Will, the horse that Maximum Security interfered with around the second turn at Churchill Downs, the 144th Preakness will instead have to brand itself as one of the most wide-open runnings in recent memory.
While the lack of star power isn’t great for the sport or likely for NBC’s television ratings, it’s an intriguing and challenging race from a handicapping perspective. Unlike most editions of the Preakness, where a horse who ran well in the Derby is the clear favorite, only four horses from Kentucky stayed on the Triple Crown trail.
They’re led by Improbable, the Bob Baffert trainee who ran a solid but unspectacular fifth (moved up to fourth via disqualification) and War of Will, who had a clear run at the top of the stretch after the bumping incident with Maximum Security but flattened out in the stretch to finish eighth (placed seventh). The other two Derby runners, Win Win Win and Bodexpress, were compete non-factors.
Improbable was made the 5-to-2 favorite on the morning line with War of Will the second choice at 2-to-1. Both of them figure to be overbet by the public because of familiarity and, in Improbable’s case, blind support for a Baffert barn that has won the Preakness seven times.
It’s certainly possible that these are simply the two best horses in an unusually weak Preakness field and will justify their short odds on race day. But as a bettor, it’s hard to find much value in a horse like Improbable, who laid just off a fast pace in the Derby, had no real traffic trouble and simply wasn’t fast enough to hit the board.
With that in mind, I’m gravitating toward the horses who didn’t run in the Derby. Most of them, admittedly, missed the Derby for one reason — they ran poorly in prep races this spring and couldn’t accumulate enough points to get in the starting gate at Churchill Downs.
But two newcomers entered Saturday stand out as legitimate contenders: Owendale and Anothertwistafate, who ran 1-2 in the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland on April 13.
For much of the spring, Owendale didn’t look like much of a Triple Crown prospect. Though he impressively won a conditional allowance race at the Fair Grounds in January, he was essentially eliminated from the Derby conversation after fading to eighth in the Risen Star stakes.
But a change in strategy paid big dividends in the Lexington, as jockey Florent Geroux took him off the pace after Owendale had shown early speed in his previous starts. And despite fairly slow fractions, Owendale was able to make a sweeping move around the far turn that carried him to the lead, winning by a commanding 1 3/4 lengths.
Owendale, who ran a 98 Beyer Speed Figure that day, has trained well since the Lexington, clocking a five-furlong breeze for trainer Brad Cox in 59 1/5 seconds on May 11. In other words, he’s shown he’s fast enough to win this race.
Anothertwistafate also ran well that day, losing some ground in traffic on the far turn before rallying to finish second. He should be laying close to the pace in the Preakness.
At 10-to-1 on the morning line, Owendale represents the best value in the field. Though it’s certainly possible his strong performance in the Lexington was a one-off, it was both a visually impressive performance and one that would place him in the race’s top-tier from a speed figure standpoint (Improbable and Win Win Win previously posted career-best Beyer figures of 99). If he repeats that effort or improves, he’ll be in strong position to win the Preakness.
Though a monster payout like the Derby is difficult in a 13-horse field, several long shots have a chance to hit the board. Among them are Signalman, who was one of the nation’s top 2-year olds last fall; the local horse Alwaysmining, who has won six in a row at nearby Laurel Park; and Warriors Charge, the other Cox trainee who has never run in a stakes race but dominated his last two races at Oaklawn Park.
If Owendale wins, throwing those horses into exactas and trifectas along with the two favorites could generate a nice score on the exotics.
1st – Owendale
2nd – War of Will
3rd – Anothertwistafate
(Using Improbable, Signalman, Alwaysmining, Warriors Charge in exactas and trifectas.)
Though it’s unfortunate and unusual for a Kentucky Derby winner to miss the Preakness — it’s only happened four times in the last 59 runnings — that doesn’t mean the race will be a dud.
Instead of the Maximum Security-Country House rematch everyone wanted, we instead get a unique betting opportunity. In a race that is usually good to favorites and horses who ran in the Derby, this seems like an ideal year to go against the grain.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken