Congratulations to all who had Animal Kingdom winning the Kentucky Derby two weeks ago. This handicapping column did not have the chestnut colt as its top selection. (He was sixth on the list.) But as he returns to the track in Saturday's Preakness Stakes with a chance to add the second leg of the Triple Crown, we have enthusiastically jumped on the Animal Kingdom bandwagon.
The selections, in order (morning line odds in parentheses):
Despite a slow pace and a wide trip, Animal Kingdom still crossed the wire first in Louisville. On Saturday, the early pace should be much more favorable to Animal Kingdom's off-the-pace running style, and, with just 13 other horses in the race, he shouldn't have to travel as wide around the turn.
More importantly, Animal Kingdom should be sitting on a big effort. After the Derby, trainer Graham Motion acknowledged that he was worried the horse may have been "light" on conditioning two weeks ago, and he still won. If Animal Kingdom was light then, he's dead fit now and capable of running away with the Black-eyed Susans on Saturday.
At 2-1, he does not offer much betting value, but he is the horse to beat.
This handicapping space has grown to trust Bob Baffert. If the trainer says his horse is about to run big, then run to the windows. And that's the impression he is giving about Midnight Interlude, who finished 16th (out of 19) in the Kentucky Derby. The Santa Anita Derby winner turned in a terrific workout on Monday that suggests he's back to normal and that the Louisville effort was an aberration. Don't be surprised if Midnight Interlude shocks the Preakness at a price.
In a Louisville restaurant just four hours after Mucho Macho Man ran third in the Derby, I ran into one of the minority owners of the colt, who told me, "He's going to win the Belmont." Before I could ask him, "How about the Preakness?" he was off into the night. With Mucho Macho Man being a June foal, he still has much maturing to do, which is probably one of the reasons for the connections' confidence in his future. As for his chances on Saturday, Mucho Macho Man has a big shot. He ran well in the Derby, and, according to all reports, he has been full of energy leading up to the Preakness. If he can avoid being too close to what could be a hot pace, he should be among the contenders at the end.
This is a game horse that hates being passed. In his last two races he has re-rallied after being headed by another foe. His last effort, a third in the Arkansas Derby, was particularly promising. He tracked a hot pace and still held on to the show spot, losing by less than two lengths to Archarcharch. On Saturday he will likely stalk the fractions set by Flashpoint and Shackleford and move to challenge them on the far turn. The question is how game will he be this time around?
In his last race, the Arkansas Derby, jockey Pat Valenzuela moved prematurely on Sway Away, who ended up fading to fourth. For the Preakness, Sway Away gets the services of jockey Garrett Gomez, who rode Afleet Alex to an impressive second-place finish in the San Vicente in February. Expect Sway Away to make one big run and threaten to hit the board.
The Derby favorite closed well in Louisville but still could only finish eighth. He still has yet to run relatively fast around two turns, and he may be too dependent on the pace collapsing to really challenge for the top spot.
He faded to fourth in the Derby despite setting glacial fractions. With Flashpoint drawn to his inside, it's unlikely Shackleford will be able to get to the front on Saturday. And, if he does, he still has not shown he can hang on.
Trainer Steve Asmussen has been playing catch-up this year with the son of A.P. Indy. A talented two-year-old, Astrology has two second-place finishes in 2011 and may just now be coming around. But this looks like a tough group for him to tackle at this time.
Can the likely pacesetter carry his speed for the Preakness distance of 1 3/16 miles? Given that he finished fourth in the Florida Derby, the guess here is no.
He is the only Preakness entrant to have run at Pimlico, and he is 2 for 2 at the track. But he faces a major step up in class for this one. I'll pass.
Trainer John Shirreffs is winning at a 25 percent clip this year, but he will have to work all of his magic to get the third-place finisher in the Santa Anita Derby to be a major player on Saturday.
In his only two starts on dirt, he has lost by a combined 31 1/2 lengths. No thanks.
Isn't He Perfect is a slight favorite over Norman Asbjornson to be last under the wire on Saturday.