Barbaro, winner of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), hadn't arrived at the Pimlico grounds as of Friday morning. But he was there in the minds of other trainers with horses in Saturday's Preakness Stakes (gr. I).
Barbaro "is a very good horse, maybe a great one," said Kiaran McLaughlin, who will saddle Like Now. "We'll know more in a few weeks. Right now, he hasn't done anything wrong. But he hasn't run back in two weeks yet, so we hope that is a chink in his armor. That's about all we can hope for. I have a lot of respect for the horse and the connections, but two weeks is two weeks. They're not machines. They react, and they bounce. So you don't know. He probably will overcome that, but we've got to take a shot.
"He's the horse to beat, but there are some pretty damn nice horses in here also -- Bernardini, Brother Derek, Sweetnorthernsaint, Like Now -- with a chance. I think we could be looking at greatness, but we'll see. Me, as a handicapper, I look at the Ragozin Sheets and two weeks back is very difficult, but he can react, and still be better than the best of us. You have to pick him, but I wouldn't bet on him at 3-5. You have to go for value."
McLaughlin said his game plan with Gotham Stakes (gr. III) winner and Lexington Stakes (gr. II) runner-up Like Now is to "be on the rail and on the lead, so we hope that things go well for us. We're trying to win it; we're not here to be third or fourth. It might cost us, but we're going to go for the win. We're not going to sit there trying to pick up a check. Our horse can relax to the point where he doesn't have to be on the lead. It's just that he's a bit keen early and has a lot of natural speed."
At his morning press conference, Dan Hendricks, the trainer of Brother Derek, was anticipating the chance to take on Barbaro again. Brother Derek dead-heated fourth with Jazil in the Derby after a troubled trip.
"I expect a great race," Hendricks said. "He (Barbaro) is a really good horse, and we're a very good horse. Hopefully, with Sweetnorthernsaint also and the new shooters, it will just be a real clean run, great race. Maybe we can all enjoy it. Hopefully, it comes right down to the wire with us and Barbaro. I don't think we can make up 10 lengths or something like that on him (Barbaro). He's too good a horse. We have to be in a striking position, hopefully right in front of him or well in front of him. One thing we don't want to be is behind him."
As for how Brother Derek's jockey, Alex Solis, will have to approach the Preakness, Hendricks said: "He can't think, 'Oh, I can get him (Barbaro) whenever I want.' He has to ride a race to beat to the horse, not for him to beat us. He (Barbaro) is the target."
Barbaro enjoyed an incident-free morning at Pimlico the day before the Preakness.
"He went to the gate and stood in the gate, nice and quiet," Hendricks reported, "and then had a mile gallop and went just up against the bit -- a strong gallop, went real nice. Just once around."
Nick Zito, who will saddle allowance winner Hemingway's Key, also expressed respect for Barbaro.
"He's done it both on the grass and the dirt," Zito said. "Nobody talks about that. That's amazing to do for a young horse, and he's only 3. And he's equally as great on the dirt as he is on the grass -- tremendous. That's something I think that should be brought out more. It's a hard thing to do."
For the Preakness, Zito said he would like to see "a tremendous, tremendous pace, and we get a chance to come with at least some kind of effort and run. That's how I would like it to set up."
Asked if he would be surprised if Hemingway's Key (eighth in the Lexington Stakes in his most recent start) won the Preakness, Zito admitted, somewhat sheepishly, "Yeah, I would be."