Steve Kornacki's Guide to the Preakness: Will Mystik Dan take the second leg of the Triple Crown?

Step aside, red roses, it’s time for some black-eyed Susans. Two weeks removed from the Kentucky Derby, the Triple Crown now heads to its middle jewel at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore. The eight-horse Preakness field is, as always, far smaller than what we saw in the Derby. It’s also a touch shorter at 1 3/16-miles.

And there has been a massive, race-altering development, with the surprise news that Muth won’t run Saturday. The Bob Baffert-trained horse, who’d been made the 8-5 morning line favorite, had loomed large over this Preakness. He had defeated — handily — Derby champ Mystik Dan in a race several months ago, and had he been permitted to run in the Kentucky Derby (Baffert’s suspension by Churchill Downs kept him out), he would have been one of the top choices.

Muth’s absence has cleared the way for Mystik Dan, now listed at 8-5 on a revised morning line, to become the Preakness favorite. And it boosts the chances that, for the first time since 2018, a Derby winner ends up in the Pimlico winner’s circle.

That, after all, has been the point of the Preakness in modern times: to find out whether the Derby champ can follow it up with another victory and head to New York with a shot at the Triple Crown.

Can he do it again?

Let’s start by setting some criteria. As we look at historical data and trends, why don’t we just put that Covid Preakness of 2020 to the side? Not only was it last in the Triple Crown sequence; it was also held a full month after the Derby — a much longer window than the customary 14 days. But let’s not toss out that Medina Spirit race of 2021. Despite the uproar around it, that Preakness was still run in its normal place on the calendar, two weeks after the Derby, and Medina Spirit was still, at that moment, the reigning Derby winner seeking a follow-up triumph.

With that in mind, let’s now consider the 25 most recent Preaknesses. When it comes to the Derby winner, here’s the picture that emerges:

  • 23 of 25 Kentucky Derby winners ran in the Preakness.

  • 18 of them finished in the top three.

  • 10 of them won.

That’s 10 wins from the last 23 Derby winners who contested the Preakness — a hit rate of 43%. And it makes sense. The Preakness is a far more compact and much less chaotic race than a 20-horse Derby donnybrook. And especially in recent years, as trainers have shied away from running horses on short rest, many of the most talented Derby also-rans have simply skipped this race. On Saturday, besides Mystik Dan, only two Derby alums will compete: fourth-place finisher Catching Freedom and 17th-place Just Steel.

Mystik Dan, of course, isn’t an ordinary Derby champ. He was a long shot, winning at 18-1 odds. That creates skepticism. Was it a fluke? A product of that flawless, rail-skimming trip that jockey Brian Hernandez worked out? That’s why it was Muth, not Mystik Dan, who was initially tabbed as the favorite.

But long-shot Derby winners have held their own at Pimlico. In the time frame we used above — the past 25 Preakness races, not including 2020 — there have been nine long-shot Derby winners (defined as horses who won at odds of at least 10-1) who’ve sought follow-up victories in Baltimore. Three of them pulled it off:

As the chart shows, no matter how long the odds, winning the Kentucky Derby practically ensures a horse will be respected by the public in the Preakness. Even Mine That Bird and Giacomo, two of the most improbable Derby winners in history, went off at only 6-1 in this race. Perhaps the public took a lesson from that 1999 Preakness, when Derby winner Charismatic somehow ended up the fifth betting choice at 8-1 — which ended up looking like the steal of the century when he circled the field and won.

Also notable: Except for Monarchos in 2001, all of those long-shot Derby winners managed at least a third-place finish.

A cautionary note for Mystik Dan: While he now figures to inherit the role of favorite from Muth, it’s a title he may not want, with recent Preakness favorites having fallen short far more often than they’ve won:

Baffert and the Derby skippers

Baffert, the Hall of Fame trainer, has been the missing man in Louisville for three years now thanks to a ban Kentucky Derby officials imposed after Medina Spirit’s medicine violation in 2021.

But he’s welcome in Baltimore, and initially, he was set to have two horses in this Preakness: Muth and Imagination. Each would have easily qualified to run in the Derby if not for Baffert’s suspension.

But Muth’s scratch from the Preakness leaves Imagination as the sole Baffert entrant. He’s just 3-1 on the revised morning line and a major contender. In a race that looks light on pace, he may be able to shoot straight to the lead, try to slow the pace down and last until the finish line. It’s a favorite Baffert tactic. His last three Preakness winners — including National Treasure just last year — all won in gate-to-wire fashion.

Baffert himself commands respect on this stage. He’s the only living trainer to claim the Triple Crown (two of them, actually), he has won an all-time record 17 Triple Crown races, and he’s the most successful Preakness trainer ever, having taken this race eight times. And just like he did last year, he has come to Baltimore intent on making a statement.

His absence from the Derby was involuntary, but it also lands Imagination on the right side of an emerging Preakness trend. With trainers increasingly unwilling to run their horses on short rest (like the 14 days between the Derby and the Preakness), some now intentionally bypass the Derby and aim talented, well-rested horses at the Preakness, instead. That has improved the recent quality of Derby skippers in this race, and the results are showing.

In the 20 Preaknesses from 1997 through 2016, 17 winners had run in the Derby. But since 2017, it has looked like this:

Imagination last ran April 6 in the Santa Anita Derby, meaning he’ll be running after a six-week break. Three other horses could benefit from similar rest: Mugatu and Uncle Heavy haven’t run since April 6, and Tuscan Gold hasn’t since March 23. All three horses, though, didn’t fare well enough in qualifying races to make the Derby field — Imagination did (again, he was kept out simply because of the Baffert ban).

If it rains ...

There has already been rain in Baltimore this week, and Saturday’s forecast is unsettled. The potential for wet weather raises the potential for a wet track — a significant variable.

In good weather, a normal, dry track is rated as “fast.” That was the designation for the surface at the Kentucky Derby two weeks ago, and it’s the condition horses most commonly encounter. But as rain falls and a track collects water, its condition will be downgraded — to “good” and “wet fast” when there’s milder dampness down to “sloppy” and “muddy” when the precipitation is more prolonged or severe.

Some horses exhibit pronounced distaste for wet surfaces. Others take to them with relish (“his mudder was a mudder”). And plenty seem unaffected.

So let’s look at the Preakness field through that lens:

As you can see, only five Preakness horses have ever run on wet tracks, with three of them winning on the surface.

Long shot Uncle Heavy is notable for his unblemished wet track record. Both of Seize the Grey’s wet surface journeys, meanwhile, came at shorter distances — a pair of sprint races last summer. (He did, for what it’s worth, show unusual aggression in a win over the slop last summer, charging to the lead and holding on for dear life against a quality field.)

It’s Mystik Dan who stands out the most, though. He romped in the mud in February’s Southwest Stakes, crushing Just Steel by eight lengths, with jockey Brian Hernandez employing the same rail-hugging tactics we saw two weeks ago in Louisville. Maybe it was that rail trip, not the muddy surface, that made the difference in the Southwest for Mystik Dan. But at the very least we can say he doesn’t mind the mud one bit.

While they didn’t win, neither of the two other wet track vets disgraced themselves when they ran on off tracks. Just Steel finished (a distant) second in the above-mentioned Southwest Stakes and Catching Freedom a close third in the Risen Star Stakes in February.

As for Imagination, it’s no surprise he has run on fast tracks, since he’s based in Southern California. Whether he’ll wilt or flourish or convey cool indifference if it rains is anyone’s guess.

A confident move by Cox?

The trend of trainers’ refusing to run horses on short rest is embodied by Brad Cox. In the past five years, as of this writing, his horses have made a total of 4,741 starts in races across the country. How many of those starts came two weeks or less after the previous ones? Just 60.

Not surprisingly, then, none of the nine Derby horses Cox fielded before this year ever attempted the two-week-turnaround in Baltimore. But in a decision that has caught many off-guard, he’s going for it Saturday with Catching Freedom, the fourth-place Derby finisher.

And, rare as it is, when Cox does send out horses on short rest like that, his stats are eye-catching. Of the 60 he has run on two weeks’ (or less) rest, an impressive 16 (27%) have won. And if we set exact parameters similar to the Preakness — races at distances run on dirt with short rest — Cox is one-for-one, with Tawny Port winning (at 5-1) the 2022 Lexington Stakes exactly two weeks after a run in the Blue Grass Stakes.

The Chad Brown factor

One of the reasons for the emerging trend of Derby-skipping horses’ winning the Preakness is trainer Chad Brown. He’s relatively new to the national scene, but since 2017 he has won this race twice, both times with horses he intentionally held out of the Derby. In fact, all but one of the horses Brown has run in the Preakness were no-shows in Louisville:

He’ll try to win the Preakness on Saturday with yet another Derby nonparticipant: Tuscan Gold. Brown’s success with that kind of move makes Tuscan Gold an intriguing possibility here. With just three races to his credit, highlighted by a third-place finish in the Louisiana Derby (won by Catching Freedom), he could still have significant upside.

Tuscan Gold differs from Brown’s previous Preakness winners, however, in a key way. Both Early Voting and Cloud Computing had the qualifying points to run in the Derby, but Brown opted to keep them out and target this race. With Tuscan Gold, though, he had no choice; the horse didn’t have the points to make it to the Churchill Downs starting gate.

Triumph of the Beyers?

Before the Kentucky Derby, we highlighted several potential angles to sort out the field. One that ended up performing quite well involved Beyer Speed Ratings. The Beyers are probably the most popular horse racing analytic, designed to enable direct comparisons of horses who have run in different races on different tracks and under varying conditions. A higher speed rating, at least in theory, indicates a faster horse.

Heading into the Derby, these were the five horses who had notched the best Beyer ratings in all of their previous races:

Obviously, the horse with the highest Beyer, Fierceness, ended up being a total bust in the Derby. But Fierceness was also known to be a peculiar Jekyll-and-Hyde-type horse, one who had put up dazzling performances in some of his races while being a complete no-show in the others. So the fact that he ran 15th (with a measly 67 Beyer rating) was actually consistent with his massively inconsistent profile.

And if you looked past Fierceness, the four highest Beyers heading into the Derby came from horses that ended up finishing first (Mystik Dan), second (Sierra Leone), third (Forever Young) and fourth (Catching Freedom). In other words, if you’d simply decided to toss out Fierceness because of his unreliability and bet those four other horses in a superfecta box (meaning they’d all have to finish first to fourth, in any order), you would have cashed in for $8,254.07 on a $24 wager.

So the Beyers had a very good day in Louisville two weeks ago. What are they showing heading into this race?

Two times now, Mystik Dan has put up a Beyer figure better than anything achieved by any other horse in the field.

Four others aren’t far off. Catching Freedom has shown consistency, posting the same career-best 97 in back-to-back races. Imagination’s 96 from early March marks him as a contender, although he regressed more recently when he lost a stretch duel to Stronghold in the Santa Anita Derby. Just Steel’s best Beyer of 95 also indicates obvious potential here — if you’re willing to chalk his unsightly 17th-place Derby finish up to lousy tactics. And Tuscan Gold’s 96 came in his last race, which was just his third ever.

Seize the Grey, Mugatu and Uncle Heavy, meanwhile, are all a cut below the rest of the field, at least according to the Beyers, and would need to make significant leaps forward to have a chance in Baltimore.

My pick to win the Preakness

When I picked Just Steel in the Derby, I acknowledged that my track record was poor and that I was listening to my heart more than my head. The story of a resurgent 88-year-old D. Wayne Lukas, his career unexpectedly rejuvenated with a bundle of talented additions to his barn, resonates powerfully with me.

But you see what that got me.

So this time, I’ll go with my head. A modest pace seems likely, so I’d like a horse who won’t be too far from the front. A stalker-type that has shown an ability to sit just off the pace and then turn it on as they turn for home appeals to me. I’d also like it to be a horse that has put up strong speed figures. And a jockey who has enjoyed Triple Crown success would be a plus, too. Oh, and of course, I’m also looking for a price.

By God, I’ve done it again. I’ve talked myself into D. Wayne Lukas and Just Steel.

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