With only two horses left to be drawn, including Kentucky Derby (gr. I) winner War Emblem, and the first and last choices for post positions remaining, trainer Bob Baffert was poised to be either the straw that stirred the Preakness post position drink or a man without a plan. But Baffert's good fortunes in the Triple Crown continued when War Emblem's name came up with the first choice, leading his owner, Prince Ahmad Salman, to remark, "I'm a very happy man."
When the second portion of the post position draw for Saturday's Preakness continued -- when the connections of the 13 horses picked their post positions -- Baffert used that first selection to choose post eight. He knew several of the other trainers whose horses had a similar front-running style to that of the Derby winner wanted to be drawn outside of War Emblem. And that's exactly the way the draw went.
D. Wayne Lukas, selecting second for Table Limit, a colt coming off consecutive front-end sprint wins at Keeneland, took post nine. John Ward, who has virtually challenged War Emblem to a front-running duel with Fountain of Youth (gr. I) winner Booklet, could have gone with the number one or two post with the eighth selection but instead chose 10 to be outside of War Emblem and Table Limit. When Lukas used the 11th selection for Derby runner-up Proud Citizen, he could have gone with the one, 12, or 13, and chose 12. Only Medaglia d'Oro among the serious contenders with a chance to go inside or outside of War Emblem, took the inside route, when Anthony Dutrow, acting on behalf of trainer Robert Frankel, use the fifth selection to chose post five.
Ward called it the most strategic post position draw he's attended. "Mrs. Oxley (wife of Booklet's owner, John Oxley) wanted to go inside, but the rest of us didn't," said Ward. "I thought Baffert would go as far out as possible with his pick without worrying about his horse losing ground. Nobody wants to get caught inside, with horses dropping in on them. I'm not that concerned with being that far out because I think our horse can outrun them all to the first turn."
The trainer of last year's Derby winner, Monarchos, said he also didn't want to have Booklet standing in the gate long and wondered why Pimlico does not "double load" the Preakness starters. Many other tracks do that by loading in tandem, with an inside horse going into the gate at the same time as a horse in the middle of the field.
Baffert was not very surprised with how the choices followed after he took the number eight post. "I think Wayne wanted to be outside to put heavy pressure on me," Baffert said. "I thought Booklet might possibly go inside because that would have been an easier route to the lead for him. From outside of me he's going to have to work harder to get there. But they didn't go for it.
"Anyone outside of War Emblem is going to have to really use their horses to get in front of me, and that's why I did that."
Baffert called the Pimlico racing surface "demanding" for front-runners, remembering how one of his runners, Congaree, tired racing on the front end last year. He said he doesn't understand why everyone is so insistent on battling for the early fractions.
"I just don't know what's in the other guys' minds," he said. "I just know what we are going to do -- bounce him away from the gate. I don't know if the other guys are here for the crab cakes or what, but I'm trying to win the Preakness."
Lukas said the aggregation of speed horses in a line toward the outside "will probably make for a tick or two faster pace than we normally would get. With the excitement and everything, these horses are going to react to what they do best."
The Hall of Fame trainer said he thinks War Emblem, Proud Citizen, Harlan's Holiday, and Medaglia d'Oro are the horses to beat on Saturday and isn't all that concerned with fresh horses that skipped the Derby. "My experience in the Preakness is that it's the battle tested ones that show up," he said. "There are some wannabes in here."