Preakness 2024: Muth, in No. 4 post, is early favorite over Kentucky Derby champion Mystik Dan

Mystik Dan won the Kentucky Derby, but he’s not the early favorite in a compelling field of nine contenders lined up for Saturday’s Preakness Stakes.

That distinction goes to Bob Baffert-trained Muth, who did not run in the Derby because Baffert remains suspended from Churchill Downs. Muth, an 8-5 choice in the Preakness morning line, beat Mystik Dan in the March 30 Arkansas Derby.

Their rematch, with Mystik Dan as the 5-2 second choice, will headline the second leg of the Triple Crown at Pimlico Race Course. They’ll start right next to one another, with Muth breaking from the No. 4 post and Mystik Dan from the No. 5.

Other contenders primed to upset that narrative include fourth-place Derby finisher Catching Freedom, whose robust training prompted trainer Brad Cox to change his mind and point toward the Preakness, and Baffert’s second entry, Imagination.

The rest of the field for the $2 million race features horses from star trainers such as Chad Brown, shooting for his third Preakness victory with Tuscan Gold, and D. Wayne Lukas, aiming for his seventh with the pair of 17th-place Derby finisher Just Steel and Seize the Grey.

“I think that top to bottom, it’s a pretty solid Preakness again,” said Lukas, whose history with the race goes back to 1980. “We needed the Derby winner in here; we really did. If this thing is going to carry its credentials, we need the Derby winner in here every year, assuming he’s physically good. And he was. I looked at him this morning. I watched him all week. He’s very good.”

Trainer Kenny McPeek kept the racing world in suspense for a week as he mulled whether to bring Mystik Dan to Baltimore or go straight to New York to prepare for the Belmont Stakes. He said he was uncertain the morning after the colt held off Sierra Leone and Forever Young in a three-way photo finish at Churchill Downs, set up by jockey Brian Hernandez Jr.’s clever rail-hugging ride.

On Saturday morning, McPeek confirmed Mystik Dan would run in the Preakness after a week of hearty eating and energetic training. The Derby champion arrived at Pimlico on Sunday afternoon and galloped over the muddy track for the first time Monday morning.

“He’s such a smart horse, man, he takes it all in,” said two-time Preakness winner Robby Albarado, who rides Mystik Dan for his morning gallops. “He was ready for another round around there.”

Albarado said Mystik Dan felt slightly “beat up” when he returned to training four days after his Derby win, “but I’ve seen a progression since then. He’s pretty much almost back to himself.”

Mystik Dan is the first Derby winner to run in the Preakness and not be the morning-line favorite since I’ll Have Another (who won the race) in 2012.

If he’s to become the first horse since Triple Crown winner Justify in 2018 to win both the Derby and Preakness, he’ll have to turn the tables on Muth, who beat him in Arkansas and will be running on five weeks’ more rest. Baffert picked up his record eighth Preakness win last year when his fresh contender, National Treasure, knocked off Derby champion Mage.

He’ll try to repeat that formula with Muth, who would have been a top contender at the Derby (Baffert is still barred from the first jewel of the Triple Crown because of the medication violation that cost Medina Spirit victory in 2021).

“He shows up and runs his race every time; he’s first or second,” Baffert said of Muth, who’s expected to arrive at Pimlico on Tuesday. “To me, he just keeps getting better and better.”

Imagination is no slouch either, coming off a second-place finish in the April 6 Santa Anita Derby. The 6-1 co-third choice will start from the outside No. 9 post.

“I think he’s improving whereas Muth just needs to stay where he’s at,” Baffert said. “He’s still learning. We’re learning more about him. [Jockey] Frankie [Dettori] is learning more about him. He needs a target. … I think the [1 3/16-mile] distance is not going to be a problem for him.”

The 6-1 co-third choice in the morning line, Catching Freedom, was expected to skip the Preakness after his late charge left him short of the three horses bunched at the front of the Derby. The field’s top closer, winner of the March 23 Louisiana Derby, changed Cox’s mind.

“We put a lot of focus on the Kentucky Derby, and that obviously does take away from Preakness a little bit,” Cox said. “It’s just not as common to run these horses back in two weeks as maybe it used to be. It basically comes down to how the horse is doing, and we’re happy with the way he’s training. Based off who we hear is running, he stacks up with that group of horses — bottom line.”

Catching Freedom will break from the No. 3 post with 2021 Preakness winner Flavien Prat aboard.

Brown chose not to bring Derby runner-up Sierra Leone to the Preakness, preferring to rest him for the Belmont Stakes, but he will take a shot with Tuscan Gold, coming off a third-place finish in the Louisiana Derby. Both of Brown’s Preakness wins have come with horses that did not run in the first leg of the Triple Crown.

Tuscan Gold, an 8-1 fifth choice in the morning line, will start from the No. 8 post.

The 88-year-old Lukas loves to come to Pimlico anytime he has a horse with a chance, and he has two this year after he missed the 2023 Preakness. Seize the Grey, a 15-1 choice, will start from the No. 6 post, while Just Steel, also a 15-1 choice, will start from the No. 7.

Lukas believes the Preakness will set up better than the Derby for Just Steel.

“We got into a speed jam, and there was no way that he could finish and do well there,” he said Monday morning. “But that happens in racing. You’ve got to be careful not to penalize a horse for one race like that. If you go back a race previous — I think Bob Baffert’s horse, Muth, is pretty likely to be the [Preakness] favorite, and we were there second in the Arkansas Derby with him. So if he’s the favorite, we probably figure for a piece of it too.”

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Lukas also has high hopes for Seize the Grey, coming off a 1 1/4-length win in the Pat Day Mile on the Derby undercard: “I like him. He’s really set up for a beautiful effort. That Pat Day was just a mile, but it was very, very professional. I loved the way he ran in it, and he finished strong. I have no reservations about him getting the added distance of the Preakness at all.”

Rounding out the Preakness field are a pair of longer shots, Uncle Heavy and Mugatu.

Uncle Heavy, a three-time winner before he finished fifth in the April 6 Wood Memorial, is a 20-1 choice in the morning line and will start from the No. 2 post.

Mugatu, fifth in the talent-packed Blue Grass Stakes, is a 20-1 choice and will start from the inside No. 1 post.

149th Preakness Stakes

Pimlico Race Course

Saturday, approx. 6:50 p.m.