Animal Kingdom was a surprise 20-1 winner of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) and by all accounts has come out of the first leg of the Triple Crown in fine shape.
Two weeks later, the son of Leroidesanimaux seems to be primed for another big effort but one major question remains: How will he fare in the $1 million Preakness Stakes (gr. I), given that it is a race that will almost certainly present a much different pace scenario than the one he saw at Churchill Downs.
The answer to that question will come May 21 at Pimlico Race Course when Animal Kingdom faces 13 rivals in the 136th running of the Preakness. Post time is set for 6:18 p.m. EDT and the Triple Crown’s second jewel will be shown live on NBC.
A homebred of Team Valor International, Animal Kingdom was pegged as the 2-1 morning-line favorite to take the 1 3/16-mile Preakness. If the chestnut colt should win, he would have the chance to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed pulled it off in 1978 in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) June 11.
Should each of the 3-year-olds entered make the starting gate, it will be the first time since 2005 the Preakness will go to post with 14 runners—the maximum number allowed in the race. All starters will carry 126 pounds.
Trained by Graham Motion and ridden by John Velazquez, Animal Kingdom won the Derby by 2 3/4 lengths in only his fifth start and his first try on dirt. After racing mid-pack for the early part of the race, he made his winning move on the final turn before overtaking Shackleford and Nehro in the stretch.
The pace in the Derby was much more leisurely than most anticipated—the opening six furlongs in 1:13 2/5 was the slowest on a fast track in the last 64 years—which may have benefited Animal Kingdom by keeping him from falling too far back. But with speedsters Dance City and Flashpoint now in the mix, the Preakness pace figures to be significantly faster. How that affects Animal Kingdom is the major riddle coming into the Preakness.
“I think he’s super. I feel very good about where he’s at,” said Motion, whose stable is based at nearby Fair Hill Training Center, which is about 60 miles from Pimlico. Animal Kingdom will ship from Fair Hill to Pimlico the morning of the race. “I think he should be able to adapt to any kind of pace.”
Motion has saddled three previous Preakness starters, his last in 2008 when Icabad Crane was third. Velazquez will also compete in his fourth Preakness, having finished fifth in his other three tries.
Animal Kingdom, 3-2-0 from five lifetime starts, will break from post 11, which has produced two Preakness winners.
Though he finished eighth as the 5-1 choice in the Derby, many expect Robert LaPenta’s Dialed In to run a much better race in Baltimore. A dead closer, the son of Mineshaft may have been compromised by that slow Derby pace. He was last after six furlongs before passing horses in the late going.
Trainer Nick Zito is certainly hoping for more early speed, and if he gets it, he thinks Dialed In has a big chance. Julien Leparoux will keep the mount on the 9-2 morning-line second choice.
“The pace should be quicker, I wouldn’t think they could go any slower,” said Zito, who won the Preakness in 1996 with Louis Quatorze. “If he gets a decent pace and stays out of trouble, he will make his run. I still think he is the best 3-year-old in the country.”
If Dialed In does pull the minor upset, in addition to the $600,000 winner's share he will earn a $5.5 million bonus from Pimlico's parent company, MI Developments, for winning the Holy Bull Stakes (gr. III), Florida Derby (gr. I), and Preakness.
Reeves Thoroughbred Racing and Dream Team Racing’s Mucho Macho Man (6-1) has not run a bad race in his nine-start career, and there are many that think he is the one to beat. He didn’t find his best stride until late in the Derby, but still was beaten only three lengths.
Graded stakes-placed four times so far, Mucho Macho Man scored his biggest win in the Feb. 19 Risen Star Stakes (gr. II). Rajiv Maragh will ride for trainer Kathy Ritvo. It is the Preakness debut for both of them.
“He came out of the Derby in great shape,” Ritvo said. “When we went to the van on Sunday morning after the Derby, he was just feeling so good and had so much energy, so bright-eyed. He really seems to be improving and getting better. He's strong.
“We have a really good chance if we get some racing luck.”
Shackleford (12-1) and Midnight Interlude (15-1) also come out of the Derby after running vastly different races. Shackleford, the Florida Derby runner-up, set the pace under Jesus Castanon and took a one-length advantage into the stretch before settling for fourth. He is expected to be near the front-end once again, along with Dance City and Flashpoint. The son of Forestry is trained by Dale Romans, who sent out longshot First Dude to finish second a year ago.
Midnight Interlude, a 13-1 upsetter in the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) in only his fourth start, was never a factor in the Kentucky Derby. Trainer Bob Baffert, a Preakness winner five times including last year with Lookin At Lucky, is hopeful the War Chant colt will run much better this time around.
“Animal Kingdom is the best horse in the race and the one to beat. I’m hoping we can hit the board in this race,” Baffert said.” I was really disappointed with (Midnight Interlude’s) Derby. He just didn’t fire. But he had a really good work the other day. He had a lot of snap. I liked what I saw so we brought him and we’ll see what happens. “
Martin Garcia replaces Victor Espinoza on Midnight Interlude.
Dance City (12-1) and Flashpoint (20-1) are both lightly-raced but bring electric speed into the Preakness.
Dance City, who has hit the board in all four of his starts, was on the pace during quick Arkansas Derby (gr. I) splits and held on gamely to finish third. The City Zip colt will try to hand trainer Todd Pletcher and jockey Ramon Dominguez their first Preakness wins.
The New York-based Dominguez, who won the Eclipse Award as outstanding jockey in 2010, was leading rider at Pimlico in 2001. He has finished second in the Preakness twice, including last year with First Dude. Pletcher has saddled six Preakness starters without a victory.
Flashpoint is even less experienced, having started only three times. He was an eye-catching winner in his first two starts, including the Feb. 26 Hutcheson (gr. II) at Gulfstream Park when 7 1/4 lengths in front, before finishing fourth in the Florida Derby in his first try at two turns.
Since that start he was transferred to the barn of Wesley Ward. Flashpoint has trained exceptionally at Keeneland during the past three weeks.
By Pomeroy, Flashpoint may be pushing the limits on how far he can go in the Preakness, but his connections think he can outrun his pedigree.
“Pedigree is an indication, but the four-generation pedigrees are all pretty much the same nowadays,” said John Fort, president of Peachtree Stable. “The immediate direct influences of Pomeroy and (dam) Two Punch Lil suggests that he is more likely to be a sprinter. But it just means he’s more likely, it’s not an absolute.
"He’s a big, strong horse with overpowering speed and a great mind. And he’s a terrific breathing horse; he never lacks for air. I’m willing to go to Baltimore and take our chances.”
Other mid-range longshots that will take some action are Astrology (15-1) and Sway Away (15-1).
Astrology was runner-up in both the Sunland Park Derby (gr. III) and Jerome (gr. II) in his last two starts after getting a late start to his sophomore season. He won the Kentucky Jockey Club (gr. II) as a 2-year-old and has never been off the board in seven starts. Trained by two-time Preakness-winning trainer Steve Asmussen, Astrology will be ridden by Mike Smith, who won the race in 1993 aboard Prairie Bayou.
Sway Away was the last horse excluded from the Kentucky Derby after falling just short of the necessary graded earnings. He was fourth in the Arkansas Derby after taking a short lead into the stretch. Two-time Eclipse Award-winning rider Garrett Gomez will have the mount.
“He’s doing real well,” said trainer Jeff Bonde. “We were obviously disappointed not to get into the Kentucky Derby, but this is another big opportunity for us.”
The two local horses are Concealed Identity (30-1) and Norman Asbjornson (30-1). Concealed Identity, who is trained by 80-year-old local Eddie Gaudet, has won his only two starts at Pimlico, including the May 7 Federico Tesio Stakes last out. Norman Asbjornson was fourth in the Wood Memorial Stakes (gr. I) in his last start. Local rider Julian Pimentel has the mount for trainer Chris Grove.
Rounding out the field are Isn’t He Perfect (30-1), Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) third-place finisher King Congie (20-1), and California shipper Mr. Commons (20-1), third in the Santa Anita Derby.
$1,000,000 Preakness Stakes (gr. I, Race 12, 6:18 p.m.), 3YO, 1 3/16 Miles (Dirt) PP. Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer, Odds 1. Astrology (KY), M E Smith, 126, S M Asmussen, 15/1
2. Norman Asbjornson (PA), J Pimentel, 126, C W Grove, 30/1
3. King Congie (KY), R Albarado, 126, T Albertrani, 20/1
4. Flashpoint (FL), C H Velasquez, 126, W A Ward, 20/1
5. Shackleford (KY), J L Castanon, 126, D L Romans, 12/1
6. Sway Away (KY), G K Gomez, 126, J Bonde, 15/1
7. Midnight Interlude (KY), M Garcia, 126, B Baffert, 15/1
8. Dance City (VA), R A Dominguez, 126, T A Pletcher, 12/1
9 . Mucho Macho Man (FL), R Maragh, 126, K Ritvo, 6/1
10. Dialed In (KY), J R Leparoux, 126, N P Zito, 9/2
11. Animal Kingdom (KY), J R Velazquez, 126, H G Motion, 2/1
12. Isn't He Perfect (KY), E S Prado, 126, D Shivmangal, 30/1
13. Concealed Identity (MD), S Russell, 126, E D Gaudet, 30/1
14. Mr. Commons (KY), V Espinoza, 126, J A Shirreffs, 20/1