Each year in the Preakness there is approximately half the field that didn’t run in the Kentucky Derby. It can be a real betting challenge to compare these new, fresh horses to the ones that survived the grueling Derby just two weeks earlier. Luckily, we’re here to help. Here are seven questions to ask about the new invaders to see if and how well they stack up:
Why wasn’t he in the Kentucky Derby? – There isn’t a single good reason why any breeder, owner or trainer would rather win the Preakness than the Kentucky Derby. The Derby is the biggest single race on the planet, and the Preakness is just the middle jewel of the Triple Crown. There are only three reasons, then, why a thoroughbred would run in the Preakness and skip the Derby – he wasn’t qualified based on earnings, he wasn’t ready for the race, or he just isn’t good enough. As a handicapper you need to get a sense of why a horse wasn’t in the big race, and what that means for his capabilities in the Preakness. In many but far from all cases the reason the horses weren’t in the Derby is because they just aren’t very good horses.
When did he last race? – If the horse was being aimed at the Derby but couldn’t get in because of earnings issues then he could be coming off a very long layoff. If he hasn’t been in action for a while as a handicapper you need to make sure that he can handle layoffs like that, and that he has been working well in the meantime.
Who has he raced against? – When handicapping a big race like the Preakness in which horses come from all across the country it is very important that you don’t rely on where they have finished in their races in the past. It would be far more impressive if the thoroughbred had finished third in his last race against top level, elite competition in a major stakes race then it would be if they had won four in a row in ungraded stakes against regional contenders and allowance-caliber horses. Ideally you can look back at his record to see how he performed against a horse or a number of horses that ran in the Derby. If you can’t do that then you somehow need to find a way to asses the caliber of horses he has faced and how he has fared against them. Past success won’t necessarily lead to future success, but a horse taking a massive step up in class in this race is probably not in a good position to succeed.
Will he handle the distance? – The Preakness is 1/16 of a mile shorter than the Derby, but if a horse didn’t run in the Derby then it is still almost certainly the longest distance they have run in their career. It is also a distance that is beyond the comfortable capabilities of horses that are bred for speed. We know that a horse that did reasonably well in the Derby is at least somewhat capable of handling the distance, but with the new horses we have to guess if they will be bale to. That means we have to look at things like their breeding and how well they have fared in the latter stages of their longest previous races.
How good are the Derby horses? – New invaders not only have to be able to beat all of the other new invaders, but they have to be able to beat all the advancing Derby horses as well. That’s obviously easier to do if the Derby class isn’t a particularly strong one. Are the best horses from the Derby moving on to the Preakness? Did the winner of the Derby win legitimately, or was he the beneficiary of circumstance? Is this a deep and strong class of three year olds, or did the Derby field seem weak and underwhelming?
Is he (or she) good enough? – This is largely a product of the questions that came before, but in your handicapping you can also get a gut sense of the horses that are joining the Triple Crown trail at this point. Some of them clearly don’t feel like they are any good, or that they are at all capable of being competitive unless the good horses have a bad day. Others feel like very strong, legitimate horses that just weren’t quite ready for the Derby, or weren’t able to run in that race for some reason. Some extremely good horses in recent years have skipped the Derby to run in the Preakness – Bernardini and Rachel Alexandra jump out as great examples. Those horses felt like they clearly fit in the field and were very legitimate contenders. Maryland-based horses that sneak into the field of this Triple Crown event don’t usually feel like they fit in nearly as well.