The build up to the running of the 134th Preakness Stakes has not been without incident.
First, there was the "Will He, Won’t He" saga over the participation of surprise Derby winner Mine That Bird. The bay gelding who bolted home at 50-1 at a sloppy Churchill Downs on May 2 did not have the second leg of the Triple Crown in his sights when took the post for the Run for the Roses.
His unexpected yet spectacular triumph caused his connections to rethink their plans and now the nation will be tuned in to Pimlico on Saturday to see if Mine That Bird can emulate Big Brown, Smarty Jones, and Funny Cide as the most recent to add the Preakness to a Derby victory.
Mine That bird now looks a certainty to start on Saturday the 16th; what is less certain is who will be riding him.
Calvin Borel, who masterminded the Derby win with his run up the rail reminiscent of Eddie Arcaro 68 years ago, is more likely to partner superstar filly Rachel Alexandra—if she takes the field.
There has been talk of a conspiracy against Rachel Alexandra, with some owners revealing plans to ‘buy-up’ the remaining places in the field to ensure she does not run.
Mine That Bird co-owner Mark Allen was set to include maiden Indy Express at the Kentucky Oaks winner’s expense, but ultimately decided not to take that route.
Allen has the most to gain by the filly’s absence, as it means that Borel could resume his partnership with Mine That Bird, as opposed to fulfilling his contractual obligations with Rachel Alexandra.
However, it would now appear that 13 are set to go for the Preakness, which now includes the mouth-watering prospect of the Oaks and Derby winners facing off.
In the markets, it looks very much like Rachel Alexandra will go as favourite at 3/2, with Mine That Bird a 7/2 second favourite.
Behind those two come Pioneer of the Nile at 6/1; with Friesen Fire, Musket man, and Papa Clem currently installed at 8/1 bar the field.
While Mine That Bird’s victory at Churchill Downs demonstrates how shocks do still happen, the Derby winner is rightfully found behind Rachel Alexandra in the betting.
Firstly, the track conditions in Kentucky provided a very different test than those likely to be found at Baltimore, as heavy rain saturated the track. In such extreme conditions, extreme results are known to happen, and Mine That Bird proved himself to be a real mud-lark.
Secondly, having been bred more for stamina with his sire a former Belmont Stakes Winner, Mine That Bird had previously been earmarked to miss the Preakness and head straight to Belmont Park over concerns about his pure speed.
However, the lure of the Triple Crown is strong, with much intrigue and drama condensed into the frantic five weeks.
It is generally accepted that a Derby winner will embark on a Triple Crown quest in the US; and while it is 31 years since the feat was achieved, to the public, the excitement of following another hero’s attempt is integral to the sport and synonymous with this time of year.
In the last 12 years, seven horses have won the first two legs before failing in New York. The luckless Charismatic suffered an injury that left him third in 1999, and a year before Real Quiet lost by only a nose.
In the UK, the story is a little different. While 15 horses have achieved the feat of winning the 2000 Guineas, The [Epsom] Derby, and the St. Leger since the Triple Crown’s inception in 1853 (to only 11 in the US), the last winner was Nijinsky in 1970.
Steve Cauthen did partner Oh So Sharp to the filly’s equivalent in 1985. Leaving him as the last jockey on both sides of the Atlantic to complete a variation of the ‘Crown.
Unlike the US where every year sees another horse try for the Triple Crown, opportunities in England are few and far between. Not since Nashwan in 1989 has a horse won the Guineas and The Derby; and not since reference Point in 1987 has Derby winner made the post for the St Leger.
The principal challenge in The States is the physical strain of three high profile races in just five weeks. The challenges in England are different, with three unique courses to overcome over a four-month period.
In addition, the three races vary in length from 1609m at the 2000 Guineas to 2937m at the St. Leger. The difference between the Preakness at 1,911m and the Belmont at 2,414m is less pronounced.
This makes training a horse for the challenge a task that most trainers are unwilling to take on. In 2006/07, Jim Bolger announced that his colt Teofilo would be trained with the Triple Crown in mind, and was installed as a 12/1 shot to emulate Nijinsky.
Sadly, the colt suffered a setback two days before the Guineas and the racing public never got to see him take on the challenge. His injury and subsequent retirement also led to fresh doubts over whether the Triple Crown is a feasible target for a thoroughbred.
Therefore, US race goers have much to thank the racing calendar and the history of the Triple Crown for. Every May sees the start of a new adventure, as another contender aims to take his place alongside Affirmed, Secretariat, Citation, and the others who completed the trifecta.
Whether Mine That Bird can be the one to triumph where so many have failed remains to be seen, but at least he is there. There will, of course, be one lady looking to upstage the guys on Saturday, and wouldn’t it be something for Borel to head to Belmont Park seeking his own personal hat trick—even if they come on different horses.
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