The race goes off late Saturday afternoon at Pimlico.
In our series on handicapping the Kentucky Derby, we looked at how the effects of big fields, pace, and the uncertainty of horses trying a mile and a quarter for the first time have affected how the Derby has historically been run. This week, we'll turn to the Preakness, the second jewel of the Triple Crown, a race with a rich history in its own right, and one which has recently, disappointingly and quite unfairly, lost some of its luster, primarily due to changes in how modern Thoroughbreds are trained.
The first thing one notices, when one peruses the results charts of the last 50 years or so of results of both races, is how much more formful the Preakness has been when compared to the Kentucky Derby. While many years the results of the Derby have seemed almost inexplicable, even with the benefit of hindsight, that has rarely been the case in the Preakness: the winners have virtually all made sense. Even the upsets, like when Bernardini won the 2006 Preakness at 12-1, were understandable, as that was the year when the heavily favored Barbaro, off his sensationally good win in the Derby, broke down a few jumps out of the gate. An upset is a lot easier to comprehend when the chalk breaks down and can't finish the race.
An interesting question about the different outcomes of these races is why. Why is it that the Derby has been so hard to handicap, while the Preakness has been a parade of chalk?
The first obvious reason is the field: The Preakness is restricted to 14 runners, compared to the Derby's 20. Due to the mechanics of the parimutuel system, it becomes almost exponentially more difficult for horses to go off at boxcar odds in these smaller fields. There are horses in the Derby every year who are 50-1 (and who probably should be 150-1, but that's a subject for another time), but this virtually never happens in the Preakness, and the reason is the smaller field.
Another fairly obvious reason is the distance. In the Derby, virtually none of the runners have run 1 1/4 miles before, and doping out the winner involves trying to project horses who will stay the 10 furlongs. In the Preakness, we don't need to do that: The race is 110 yards shorter than the Derby, and we have just seen which horses can get the distance, and which cannot.
The last factor we will look at today is recency, and this is the hot-button issue at the moment, because this is the one that has changed the nature of the Preakness field. It used to be that the top finishers in the Derby would automatically run in the Preakness, with a few newcomers who for one reason or other did not make the race in Louisville, either because they were unable to qualify for the Derby, or because their trainers wanted to give them more time. Two weeks between races used to be the norm -- hell, trainers would sometimes run their horses in a race between the Derby and Preakness to keep them sharp -- but as training methods changed, the two-week spacing is now viewed as far too short.
Add all of this up and we can see why the Preakness has historically been so much more formful than the Derby: the field in Baltimore is usually filled largely with runners who ran against each other in the Derby; the races are virtually the same distance; and the proximity of the races allows a handicapper to assess, fairly accurately, which horses are in good form and which horses are not. It is therefore not surprising that the results have been fairly predictable, and a stark contrast to the total chaos of the Kentucky Derby.
It is also not surprising, in light of this, that one of the most reliable handicapping angles of the year has been that when handicapping the Preakness, one can reliably remove from win consideration any horse who did not run in the Derby. Unceremoniously tossing the "fresh shooters" has been something we have enjoyed, but in our next installment, we will take a look at whether this angle is still good, or whether the lighter training regimens of today's Thoroughbred racers have given the fresh shooters a chance they generally have not had in the past. We will take a closer look at this in the next segment.