In sifting through the current list of Preakness possibles, it occurs to me that this year, more than most, the horses that ran in the Kentucky Derby stand head and shoulders above the new shooters. Now predicting the winner of the Middle Jewel of the Triple Crown to be one of the horses to have run for the roses is not exactly going out on a limb, as only 3 of the last 28 Preakness winners were new shooters, but after a 16-year drought, it has happened three times in the twelve editions of the 21st century. Red Bullet, Bernardini, and Rachel Alexandra all looked good on paper though, and none proved to be a major surprise when they were draped in black-eyed susans. And even if there hasn’t been a winner, at the very least there are usually some interesting prospects that you could take seriously before the race. This year … I’m not so sure.
While the Preakness will be headed by Derby returners like I’ll Have Another, Bodemeister, Went the Day Well, Creative Cause, Hansen, and possibly Dullahan, the list of new shooters is littered with names like Guyana Star Dweej, Pretension, Tiger Walk, Isn’t He Clever, Cozzetti and Brimstone Island. Somehow, I doubt that Kentucky Derby winning trainer, Doug O’Neill, is shaking in his boots right now over the thought of this bunch. In fairness, there are a few other possible new shooters that could provide a little more sizzle on May 19, but only just a little.
The best of the group of horses that could enter the Triple Crown fray next week at Pimlico would seem to come from the trio of Hierro, Paynter, and Teeth of the Dog. Each of the three has things to like going in, but it would still be hard to recommend any against the likes of the top handful coming out of the Derby.
Hierro, from the Steve Asmussen barn, is not yet confirmed for the Preakness, but coming out of a sharp win in the Derby Trial, would likely be the most bet of any of the new shooters. The Grade 3 victory was a breakthrough for the son of Hard Spun who had only previously won a maiden race in his first five tries. In the Derby Trial, he demonstrated his affinity for wet going as he stalked fast fractions before powering home on the sloppy track to win by 1 ½ lengths in 1:35.27 for the mile. On the downside, Hierro has never run farther than a mile, and is 0 for 4 outside of Churchill Downs, including two out-of-the money performances in his only other starts of 2012.
The horse Hierro had to put away in the stretch run of the Derby Trial was the well regarded son of Awesome Again, Paynter. Owned by Zayat Stables and trained by Bob Baffert, Paynter has the same connections as Bodemeister, meaning that his entry into the Preakness may be contingent on the Derby runner-up not running. If he does go, Paynter could well be the most talented of all the new shooters. In only three lifetime starts, he has a fast maiden win, a troubled fourth in the Santa Anita Derby, and then the second in the Derby Trial. He may turn out to be a really nice horse, but it would be hard to like his chances against his far more seasoned opponents.
Finally, you have the Michael Matz trained Teeth of the Dog. A well bred son of Bluegrass Cat, Teeth of the Dog has made steady progress in each of his three starts since running a well beaten third in his December debut. In his latest, he ran a solid third in the Wood Memorial at odds of more than 50-1. The improvement makes me believe that this is a horse with a future, but keep in mind, in the Wood he was really no match for the top two. That form was the opposite of flattered when those two, Gemologist and Alpha, came back to finish far back in the Kentucky Derby.
If Hierro, Paynter, and Teeth of the Dog do indeed represent the best of the Preakness new shooters, I suspect that I’ll Have Another needs only to defeat the horses he defeated in Louisville to move two-thirds of the way to becoming racing’s first Triple Crown winner in 34 years.