He’ll pick the winner tomorrow. And so will our other handicappers. And they probably won’t pick the same winner.
Part 2 of our Preakness handicapping series was about the new shooters, the runners in the race who did not participate in the Kentucky Derby, and about how historically have almost always been automatic throw-outs. But while history is good and informative, it is only useful if it can help us pick the winner of this year's race. We're going to look at Saturday's field to see if drawing a line through all the fresh shooters is still valid, or if changes in training methods require us to reassess what has worked in the past. We'll look at all the runners individually to see if this pattern still has legitimacy.
Before we do that, however, we should take a moment to talk about how the Preakness is usually run. Though it's run just two weeks after the Derby, and at virtually the same distance -- the Preakness is 110 yards shorter than the Derby -- the shape of these two races has historically been vastly different. While the Derby has very frequently seen a race shape that favors deep closers -- too fast early, the speed horses collapse, and the runners from far back pick up the pieces -- the Preakness has been run in a way that is much more typical of American dirt stakes races, with much more moderate early fractions that favor front-runners and stalkers at the expense of the come-from-behinders.
We will also take a moment to mention something that we mentioned in the runup to the Derby, and that is the validity of establishing a minimum requirement in terms of Beyer Speed Figures. The Preakness is just like the Derby this way: in order to be considered win contenders, horses must display the ability to run at least as fast will be required to win in Baltimore. For years, this minimum standard was a Beyer fig of 100; though in recent years this number has fallen, the notion is still just as sound as it's always been: horses who that are too slow cannot win. For this year's edition, we are establishing a minimum Beyer threshold in the mid-90s: the horses who have not shown this level of ability can hit the board, but they probably cannot win.
With this as a backdrop, we will work backward, and eliminate the slowest horses in the field: Market King, Signalman, Everfast, and Laughing Fox are all throwouts. They are too slow to win, and we can dismiss them with confidence. We'll look at the rest of the runners in order, starting from the rail and moving out.
War of Will to us looks like a massive underlay: he earned a good 95 Beyer Speed Figure in the Derby, but he was never a serious threat to win, and that is irrespective of any trouble he may have experienced in the race. If he wins, it would not be a shock, and it could be that he's been improving rapidly, but at 4-1 he is an absolute play-against.
Bourbon War is a marginal contender at best. He's never won a stakes race, his best Beyer fig is a light 93, and his deep-closing style is probably going to be a liability in the race. At 12-1, he looks like another underlay to us, and another play-against. (Editor’s note: The Associated Press is picking Bourbon War to win.)
Warrior's Charge looks dangerous to us. His first three races were decidedly pedestrian, but then he started going to the lead, and he kept running, winning maiden and allowance races in wire-to-wire fashion in very fast time. Our tendency would be to look at him as a non-threat, because he won those races setting moderate paces on at least one racing surface that favored speed, but he could also very well be improving rapidly, as 3-year-olds can do at this time of the year. An assessment of his chances will depend on a detailed pace analysis of the race, and we are not ready to share ours yet, but this horse looks live to us at 12-1.
Improbable is the favorite in the race, and this is with good reason: though he's not won a race since December, he runs his race every time: he's earned Beyer figs between 95 and 99 in all three of his 2019 starts. He figures to run something similar this time; the question is whether this will be good enough to win, or if there's another horse who can outrun him. We think he's a cinch to hit the board, but will he win?
Owendale is a marginal contender, but he's a horse we feel pretty confident will not win. He did earn a 98 Beyer winning the Lexington at Keeneland, but that fig was inflated by a perfect trip and pace setup for him. His prior races offer no evidence that he's really that good. We think he will regress, and will be tossing him from win consideration.
Alwaysmining is the local horse, and for that reason he will get a lot of support at the windows, and it's because of that support that he'll be a mammoth underlay. It's good to see a horse in this race who has made 12 career starts at this point in his 3-year-old season, and it's even better to see that he's won 7 of them, but he's never seen the likes of the horses he'll be running against on Saturday, and we think he will crack under the pressure. At 8-1, he's another underlay, and another play-against.
Bodexpress has run fairly fast, but his Kentucky Derby was disastrous, and he's still a maiden. Throw him out.
Anothertwistafate is the fresh shooter who should be taken most seriously. This horse has run fast, and he's done so consistently, with his last three Beyers being 95-94-94. He has the benefit of five weeks rest, which the Derby runners do not, and if he has improved since his runner-up finish in the Lexington at Keeneland, he could be a very, very serious threat to take the prize.
Win Win Win has regressed since January; he's yet to run a single race around two turns that was as good as his sprinting efforts. When this happens -- when developing 3-year-olds run worse as the distances get longer -- the pattern almost never reverses; these horses never wake up and run a big race in a route. He's another throwout.
What does a run through the field tell us about the returning Derby starters versus the fresh shooters? That with the exception of Improbable, the returning Derby starters look weak; and that with the exception of Warrior's Charge and Anothertwistafate, the new shooters look weak too. Will one of these three win?
It's not that simple, unfortunately. For despite how useful speed figures are -- and they are the most powerful tool in the handicapper's arsenal -- they are only one piece of a much larger puzzle. To get the whole picture, we have to analyze the race patterns of these horses, and use them to predict the expected shape of the race -- the projected pace of the race, which horses have running styles that the pace will favor, who figures to get a good trip, all of it -- and that requires a lot more work than we've shown here.
But we will do all of that, and we describe it, in detail, in our breakdown of the 2019 Preakness Stakes. Look for that here on Saturday morning.