Advertisement

Preakness 2024: Five storylines to watch, including Mystik Dan’s Triple Crown quest and rain in the forecast

BALTIMORE — It took just two days and two entries for the Preakness Stakes field to go from uh-oh to “pretty solid” in the estimation of trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who’s been in more of these classic races than anyone.

And it took just one scratch — morning-line favorite Muth exited the field Wednesday because of a 103-degree fever — to knock the race back down a peg.

Kenny McPeek’s decision to take Kentucky Derby winner Mystik Dan on to the second leg of the Triple Crown series gave the Preakness a headliner. The next morning, trainer Brad Cox said fourth-place Derby finisher Catching Freedom would also join the fray.

A race that seemed like it could be owned by Bob Baffert’s well-rested pair of Muth and Imagination briefly featured four intriguing contenders atop a field of nine. Muth’s scratch diminished the field, but bettors will still have plenty to contemplate as Saturday’s post time approaches.

Here are five storylines to watch for the 149th running of the Preakness.

Does Mystik Dan have another beautiful trip in him?

The Derby winner’s attempt to do it again on short rest is usually the leading story of Preakness week, and this year is no different.

Mystik Dan held on to win by a nose in a scintillating photo finish at Churchill Downs. He won’t have to face either of the horses, Sierra Leone and Forever Young, that nearly chased him down. But that does not mean his task will be easier at Pimlico Race Course.

Fresh horses have dominated the Preakness in recent years. The last to win it after running in the Derby was War of Will in 2019. Six of the eight contenders Mystik Dan will face did not compete against him in Lousiville. Muth is out, but Imagination will come in with an extra four weeks’ rest and Chad Brown-trained Tuscan Gold with an extra six weeks.

It’s a difficult math equation for a horse that was initially “beat up” after going 1 1/4 miles through a field of 20 to win the Derby. That was exercise rider (and two-time Preakness winner) Robby Albarado’s assessment of Mystik Dan when he first returned to training last week. Albarado said this mature, alert champion was largely back to being himself by the time he arrived at Pimlico on Sunday afternoon, but the fact is, Imagination and Tuscan Gold aren’t on accelerated recovery plans. They won’t have to answer the same questions as Mystik Dan come post time.

Set aside the rest disadvantage and it’s also fair to wonder if this race will unfold as perfectly for Mystik Dan as the Derby did. A hot early pace wiped out favored Fierceness, and Brian Hernandez Jr. seized the moment, sliding Mystik Dan to the rail, where he saved precious strides as Sierra Leone and Forever Young came firing in from the outside. It was a career-defining ride for McPeek’s favorite jockey, but is it repeatable?

“I think it’s a very level playing field,” McPeek said after Mystik Dan drew the No. 5 post for the Preakness.

Mystik Dan was an 18-1 shot going into the Derby. Had Muth not scratched, he would likely have become the first Derby winner since 2012 to enter the Preakness and not go off as the favorite. He would be one of the more unlikely Triple Crown candidates in recent memory, but that just means the story would be better if he pulls it off.

Can D. Wayne Lukas summon one last bit of magic?

The Preakness was the site of Lukas’ first win in the Triple Crown series with Codex in 1980 and his last with Oxbow in 2013. In between, he dominated the sport and, in Baffert’s words, “changed it all, for the better.”

Lukas has never stopped bringing horses to the second jewel of the Triple Crown, which he loves unabashedly. At age 88, he still climbs aboard his pony and holds court with reporters, assessing the state of modern racing. But he did seem to be winding down a few years ago as he lost some of the top owners for whom he trained.

Lukas has replaced them with other deep-pocketed clients, however, and he’s talking excitedly about his pair of Preakness contenders, Just Steel and Seize the Grey, along with a robust group of 2-year-olds coming behind them.

Both horses were 15-1 choices in the morning line, but Lukas does not believe Just Steel’s 17th-place finish in the Derby, where a murderous early pace wiped him out, represented his true ability. After all, he finished second, ahead of Mystik Dan, in the Arkansas Derby.

Seize the Grey won the Pat Day Mile on the Derby undercard, and Lukas expects him to have no trouble with the added distance of the 1 3/16 mile Preakness.

As much as Lukas enjoys competing with his old friend and rival, Baffert, he just as surely believes the Preakness is more there for the taking with Muth out. His horses are still relative long shots, but just about everyone in the sport — including rival Preakness trainers — would be delighted if Lukas returns to the winner’s circle at Pimlico. He’s one of the grand characters in the history of racing and especially in the history of the Preakness.

Which horse is more likely to crash the duel up top: Catching Freedom or Imagination?

Catching Freedom was a popular value pick going into the Derby, coming off his charge from the back of the pack to win the March 23 Louisiana Derby. He tried the same formula at Churchill Downs, rushing up from 15th place at the 3/4-mile pole, but he couldn’t get close enough to threaten the leaders.

Cox, one of the sport’s best, thought he’d bypass the Preakness, but Catching Freedom changed his mind with a vigorous week of training. He looked at the field, topped by Muth and Mystik Dan, and felt Catching Freedom “stacks up.”

Given Cox’s track record over the past five years, with wins in the Derby and Belmont Stakes and two Eclipse awards for outstanding trainer, we have to take his read of the race seriously. He wouldn’t come to Baltimore if he did not see a real possibility for victory.

“It’s not ideal to run back in two weeks at this level, but that’s the way the schedule is,” he said. “This race provides an opportunity to be very competitive in a Grade 1. We don’t want to miss that opportunity as long as he’s doing well. The Preakness is a very prestigious race. It’s not only a Grade 1 but a classic.”

Baffert doesn’t see Imagination as the known quantity Muth was but more as a horse on the rise with a chance to take a defining step forward in the Preakness.

Like his stablemate, Imagination has never finished worse than second in six career races. He came up a neck short in a so-so Santa Anita Derby, but his record is better than National Treasure’s was coming into his Preakness win last year. Would he be a 6-1 co-third choice with Catching Freedom if someone else was his trainer? Probably not. But Baffert has earned that confidence.

Can Chad Brown sneak in for another Preakness win with Tuscan Gold?

No trainer does a better job than Brown pointing the right horses toward the right races.

Neither Cloud Computing nor Early Voting had great careers outside their Preakness victories. But they were both primed to peak against fields lacking dominant favorites, and they gave Brown his lone wins in the Triple Crown series.

As a result, any fresh contender he brings to Pimlico must be taken seriously, and in 2024, that’s Tuscan Gold. With just three career starts, including one win in January and a third-place finish in the Louisiana Derby, this horse hasn’t given us much on which to judge him.

But after watching Tuscan Gold go 4 furlongs next to 2023 Preakness runner-up Blazing Sevens last weekend, Brown said, “That was the best I have ever seen him work.”

The trainer could have brought Derby runner-up Sierra Leone for a rematch with Mystik Dan. Instead, he’s opting to try for his third Preakness with this relatively obscure entry. A bet on Tuscan Gold, an 8-1 fifth choice in the morning line, is a bet on Brown’s acumen.

How might weather factor?

The National Weather Service is calling for showers between 2 a.m. and 2 p.m. Saturday, which would likely leave the track at least somewhat muddy by post time. That might be the best reason of all to like Mystik Dan’s chances.

Albarado noted the Derby champion’s comfort with the slop after he galloped Mystik Dan over a muddy track on his first morning at Pimlico. The colt’s greatest pre-Derby win, by 8 lengths in the Feb. 3 Southwest Stakes, came in the Arkansas mud.

Lukas saddled Just Steel for that race, just as he’ll saddle him (along with Seize the Grey) for the Preakness, and the 88-year-old trainer is plenty worried about Mystik Dan in a rainy scenario.

“I don’t think that it’ll be easy to outrun him, especially if the weather changes,” Lukas said. “He’s got a pretty good race in the mud there in Arkansas, and I’m a little worried about him being a little bit tough.”

149th Preakness Stakes

Pimlico Race Course

Saturday, approx. 6:50 p.m.

TV: NBC

Preakness 2024 field

Post, Horse, Odds

1. Mugatu 20-1

2. Uncle Heavy 20-1

3. Catching Freedom 6-1

4. Muth (Scratched)

5. Mystik Dan 5-2

6. Seize the Grey 15-1

7. Just Steel 15-1

8. Tuscan Gold 8-1

9. Imagination 6-1