Horses to Watch: 8 to follow during Preakness week

Horses to Watch: 8 to follow during Preakness week
Photo: Coady Photography

In this biweekly series, racing analyst Keeler Johnson shares promising horses from his handicapping watch list, reviewing runners who have recently caught his eye and previewing horses scheduled to run back in the near future.

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Adare Manor

Adare Manor may have been defeated in the Santa Anita Oaks (G2) last month, but she didn’t run badly by any means, finishing second by a neck against next-out Kentucky Oaks (G1) third-place finisher Desert Dawn. Chandelier (G2) winner Ain’t Easy finished another 7 1/2 lengths back in third place.

Adare Manor had previously dominated the Las Virgenes (G3) at Santa Anta by 13 lengths, and with three straight Brisnet Speed ratings in the 98-101 range under her belt, she looms as the filly to beat in Friday’s 13th race at Pimlico, the Black-Eyed Susan (G2) (post time 5:44 p.m. EDT).

Crystal Cliffs

The delicate Crystal Cliffs has only run seven times since her debut in November 2019, but she’s never missed the trifecta and ran strongly in her recent return from a long layoff, sweeping from off the pace to dominate Gulfstream Park’s 1 1/16-mile Sand Springs by 2 3/4 lengths.

Crystal Cliffs will attempt to keep her momentum going in Saturday’s fifth race at Pimlico, the Gallorette (G3) (post time 12:51 p.m.). She’ll have to reckon with Chad Brown’s Grade 1-placed filly Technical Analysis, but Crystal Cliffs still has upside and has run well at Pimlico in the past, setting the stage for a competitive showing.

Early Voting

One of the most formidable contenders in Saturday’s 13th race at Pimlico, the Preakness (post time 7:01 p.m. EDT) is Early Voting. After dominating the Withers (G3) by 4 1/2 lengths (counting next-out Rebel (G2) winner Un Ojo among his beaten rivals), Early Voting ran strongly in the Wood Memorial (G2), finishing second by just a neck after carving out the pace.

Early Voting has been pointed specifically toward the Preakness by trainer Chad Brown, who used this same Wood Memorial-to-Preakness route to win the 2017 Preakness with longshot Cloud Computing. Early Voting brings pacesetting speed to the table and should be tough to run down on the front end.

Epicenter

Early Voting looks strong on paper, but the horse to beat in the Preakness is surely Epicenter. The powerful Risen Star (G2) and Louisiana Derby (G2) winner ran a gutsy race in the Kentucky Derby, finishing second by less than one length after racing much closer to a historically fast pace than deep-closing winner Rich Strike.

You can make a case Epicenter ran the best race in the Kentucky Derby, and anything close to a repeat effort should land the son of Not This Time in the Preakness winner’s circle, giving trainer Steve Asmussen his third victory in the second jewel of the Triple Crown.

First Captain

He’s unlikely to be favored in the betting, but I’m nevertheless excited to see how First Captain performs in Friday’s 12th race at Pimlico, the Pimlico Special (G3) (post time 5:10 p.m.). Winner of the Dwyer (G3) racing one mile last season, First Captain is a son of Curlin out of an A.P. Indy mare, so he’s bred top and bottom to thrive over the 1 3/16-mile trip of the Pimlico Special.

First Captain was beaten to last place against a tough field in the seven-furlong Carter Handicap (G1) last month, but the distance was surely shorter than he wants to run. First Captain has only made one start around two turns, finishing third in the Curlin at Saratoga last summer, so he’s still largely untested over longer trips and has plenty of upside for improvement.

Pizza Bianca

Last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf heroine ran well off a layoff in the Memories of Silver at Aqueduct one month ago, finishing second by less than one length against the promising Selima winner Consumer Spending.

Pizza Bianca can bounce back to the winner’s circle in Friday’s ninth race at Pimlico, the Hilltop (post time 3:36 p.m.). She looks like a class standout on paper and should be tough to deny in the second start of her sophomore season.

Secret Oath

Did you see Secret Oath’s victory in the Kentucky Oaks (G1) at Churchill Downs two weeks ago? The daughter of Arrogate produced an awesome turn-of-foot around the far turn to sweep past her rivals and ultimately win by two lengths with a strong 103 Brisnet Speed rating.

Secret Oath has consistently shown the ability to produce meaningful moves on the far turn, which makes her dangerous while squaring off against males in the Preakness. She had the excuse of a significantly troubled trip when finishing third in the Arkansas Derby (G1) against males, so Secret Oath is eligible to finish better with an unencumbered journey at Pimlico.

Simplification

What running style will Simplification employ in the Preakness? He rallied from far behind to finish fourth in the Kentucky Derby, but midpack rallying tactics proved successful when he won the Fountain of Youth (G2), and he demonstrated gate-to-wire speed when claiming the Mucho Macho Man during the winter.

Simplification is talented, consistent and versatile, so dismiss him at your own risk in the second leg of the Triple Crown. He’ll need a step forward to turn the tables on Epicenter, but a superfecta finish is well within Simplification’s capabilities.

Which horses do you have your eyes on this week?

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