It may not possess all the hoopla of the Kentucky Derby, or have the “Test of Champions” nickname like the Belmont Stakes, but make no mistake, it is the middle jewel of the Triple Crown that has become the most important barometer in naming a champion come year’s end in all of American racing. Long considered the most formful of the Triple Crown series, Pimlico’s 1 3/16 mile test has an amazing streak going. Remarkably the horse who has won the Preakness in each of the last ten runnings has also won an Eclipse Award as Outstanding three-year-old. Let’s take a look...
2001 – Point Given was the best sophomore of his generation by a long way, but after a disappointing 5th place finish in the Derby his superiority was in question. A workmanlike victory in Baltimore took care of that and propelled him to a tour-de-force performance three weeks later at Belmont. Only two more races were in store for him, and facile victories in the Haskell and Travers helped him finish off possibly the finest three-year-old season so far in the 21st century.
2002 – When War Emblem rolled home in the Kentucky Derby in front running fashion, many wondered if it was a fluke. That thought was quickly put to bed as the speedy son of Our Emblem won the Preakness in much the same fashion. He had no luck in the Belmont, but a smart score later that summer in the Haskell was further proof that the Bob Baffert trainee was far more than a one-hit wonder.
2003 – Funny Cide became a big story when the New York bred gelding turned the tables on favored Empire Maker, who had beaten him in the Wood Memorial, to win the Kentucky Derby. Owned by a likeable crew from New York State, Funny Cide took things to a whole new level with a near ten length romp in racing’s middle jewel. He was unable to finish the Triple Crown deal, but ran a creditable 3rd in the Belmont, and his popularity was set in stone.
2004 – If you thought Funny Cide was a popular horse, then Smarty Jones was a true megastar. The colt who came from modest beginnings in Philadelphia, trumped his win in the Derby, with an absolute demolition of the Preakness field of 2004. The 11 ½ length runaway sent Smarty to the Belmont as the heavy favorite to join Seattle Slew as the only horse ever to become an undefeated Triple Crown winner. Birdstone ended the dream late in the Belmont stretch, but no one could take away the champion’s title from Smarty Jones.
2005 – Never mind that Afleet Alex had a fantastic racing season at both two and three years-old, with many stakes wins and fine performances. It will forever be his Preakness that is talked about in racing lore. The champion son of Northern Afleet was making a quick burst to the lead coming out of the turn when suddenly Scrappy T bolted and sideswiped the favorite. Miraculously, Alex, under Jeremy Rose, stayed on all four feet, quickly got back into stride and drew off down the lane to win a most remarkable edition of the Preakness.
2006 – Going in, the Preakness was all about Derby winner Barbaro. The race would end in tragedy, but it also served to announce the impressive winner, Bernardini, as a star in the making. Overpowering wins in the Jim Dandy, Travers, and Jockey Club Gold Cup validated his Preakness romp and allowed him to overtake the ill-fated Barbaro as the Outstanding three-year-old colt of 2006.
2007 – Curlin was a lightly raced monster who could not overcome a tough trip when he finished 3rd in the Derby. Any doubts on whether he was good enough were dispelled quickly as he used an amazing thrust to pass Derby winner Street Sense in the shadow of the wire to take the Preakness. It was the first of many huge wins for the son of Smart Strike who would go on to be awarded back-to-back Horse of the Year honors.
2008 – If Big Brown was impressive in winning the Derby from the outside rail, he was every bit as impressive with his effortless score in the middle jewel. If ever there was a case of a push button win in the Preakness, it was Big Brown, as he appeared never to even break a sweat. The Belmont was a disaster, but summer stakes wins at Monmouth, including the Haskell, put the three-year-old championship on ice.
2009 – A filly winning the Preakness? It had not happened in more than eighty years, but then again it is doubtful that a filly as talented as Rachel Alexandra had run in it in all those years. Her hard fought front running victory in the Preakness was her first of three huge wins against the boys, and part of a perfect eight-for-eight season that I consider to be the greatest ever by a three-year-old filly.
2010 – Favored Lookin at Lucky had absolutely terrible luck in the Kentucky Derby. A jockey change and a better post position helped him turn things around in the Preakness. The only horse to be named champion as both a juvenile and a sophomore won many races in his career, but it was his workmanlike victory in Baltimore that will go down as his most important victory in his career.
So who will grab the brass ring, win the middle jewel, and thrust themselves firmly into the race for the year-end honors as three-year-old champion?
Fresh off a convincing win in the Kentucky Derby, Animal Kingdom should be the people’s favorite, and a win by him will not only ratchet up the interest for the Belmont, but also go a long way in keeping the Preakness/Eclipse streak alive and well. The youngest horse in the field, Mucho Macho Man, who ran a bang up race in Louisville, and may still be improving week to week, should also receive a lot of interest from the bettors. Or maybe it will be one of the new shooters, like Dance City, who has proven to be game and talented in only four lifetime starts.
You can bet that whoever comes out on top on the 3rd Saturday in May, will be a horse of quality, and a horse to watch for the rest of the season. The winner of the Preakness always is.