Bob Baffert and Nick Zito like their positions heading into the Preakness Stakes (gr. I) at Pimlico on Saturday, May 21.
Their horses, Midnight Interlude and Dialed In , each had excuses after failing to win the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), and both Hall of Fame trainers know how to come back and win the Preakness.
Baffert did it last year, when Lookin At Lucky finished sixth as the beaten favorite in the Derby before rebounding two weeks later to win the Preakness.
It’s been a lot longer since Zito won in Baltimore, although he’s just as eager for a rematch with Animal Kingdom in Saturday’s Preakness.
Animal Kingdom’s Derby victory was just the third win—and first on dirt—of his career. As a result, he’s hardly scared away the competition at Pimlico, with a full field of 14 horses set to run 1 3/16 miles.
Dialed In was the 5-1 favorite in the Derby, but trailed the field and couldn’t make up enough ground, finishing eighth.
Zito blamed the lack of pace in the race for not setting up Dialed In’s late-running style.
“You don’t like to say, ‘Throw out the Derby,’ but a lot of horses have done that over the years, whether they don’t get a break the way the race is run or they have traffic problems,” Zito said.“In our case, we didn’t get a break the way the race was run. We’ve got a lot of people starting to give him credit for the race he ran.”
Baffert was surprised by Midnight Interlude’s 16th-place finish in Louisville, and believes the colt is just figuring out how to race.
“It was just a puzzling effort,” he said. “I think he got uncomfortable being behind and sort of blocked in there in the big field at the Derby. He didn’t like that.”
Midnight Interlude is an April-born 3-year-old colt who didn’t make his first start until Jan. 29, which is late for a horse that ends up on the Triple Crown trail. He won for the first time on March 20 in his third career start, and then won the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) to earn a trip to Louisville. He emerged from the Derby no worse for wear, so Baffert is taking a shot at winning his sixth Preakness.
The trainer is making one change for Saturday, replacing jockey Victor Espinoza with Martin Garcia, who rode Lookin At Lucky to victory last year. Espinoza grabbed Midnight Interlude to hold him back in the Derby, but Baffert wants the colt to be ridden aggressively.
“He just needs to put him in the race, keep him on the bit and give him a chance to be there,” he said of Garcia. “He will keep going, but he didn’t like being taken back.”
Espinoza will ride California shipper Mr. Commons in the Preakness.
Like Baffert, Zito knows that a disappointing Derby finish doesn’t necessarily have a negative effect in the Preakness. Zito is 1-for-20 in the race, with his only win coming in 1996 with Louis Quatorze, who was 16th in the Derby.
That colt led all the way to win the Preakness in an upset at 8-1, finishing in a track record time of 1:53.43, later surpassed by 2007 winner Curlin.
“For some reason with 20 horses, some of these horses really don’t get the chance to show how good they are. Again, to say, ‘Throw out the Derby,’ is hard to believe, but sometimes you just have to do that,” Zito said. “I don’t know why.”
Baffert blamed the glacial pace in the Derby on the track conditions. Shackleford , who is running Saturday, set the slowest fractions in years that included a time of 1:13.40 for three-quarters of a mile. Typically, the Derby field would have clocked 1:11.
“It was slow because it was a pretty demanding track that day,” he said.
Zito likes the fact that Dialed In came running from last in the Derby to cover the final half-mile in just more than 47 seconds.
“This is his style of running. He loves what he’s doing and we’re not going to change it,” he said. “We just have to hope for a decent pace, just a normal pace.”
Dialed In isn’t being punished for his Derby showing in the early odds. He was made the 5-2 second choice for the Preakness, while Midnight Interlude is 15-1.
Baffert called Animal Kingdom, the 2-1 favorite, the horse to beat.
“I think he’s a star,” he said. “I’m just hoping I can run second, it would be great.”