The middle jewel in horse racing's Triple Crown, the 129th running of the Preakness Stakes, will be up for grabs Saturday at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore. Eleven 3-year-old horses will be vying for a purse of $1 million over the distance of 1 3/16 miles, which is 110 yards shorter than the Kentucky Derby.
The morning line and sure-to-be race favorite is Smarty Jones who became the first undefeated horse since Seattle Slew in 1977 to win the Derby. With the victory came huge spoils from the owner of Oaklawn Park who dished out a $5 million bonus to Smarty for sweeping the Rebel Stakes and Arkansas and Kentucky derbies.
Smarty Jones is the only Pennsylvania-bred horse besides Lil E. Tee in 1992 to win the Derby, and the first one to be based at Philadelphia Park. Trainer John Servis and jockey Stewart Elliot were both participating in their first Run for the Roses, which is the first time that happened for a winner since Spectacular Bid in 1979.
Now, Smarty Jones is the only horse with the opportunity to be a living Triple Crown champion, and if he wins the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, he captures an additional $5 million bonus from VISA USA. The odds are against him though, as just 11 horses have ever won the Triple Crown, with Affirmed being the last in 1978.
Handicapping the Preakness - Of the three Triple Crown venues, Pimlico is the most unique because its turns are perceived to be tighter than most normal tracks. The Preakness course is characterized by a short run to the first turn and a shorter final stretch than in the Derby.
One might think that would favor a horse that breaks early, then takes the lead and saves ground throughout the race. But speed horses rarely win the Preakness. Only one horse besides last year's Funny Cide led wire-to-wire since 1982, and that was Louis Quatorze in 1996.
True closers also rarely win at Pimlico, Pleasant Colony being the last in 1981. With a short stretch run and any speed horses bunching up on the inside, by the time a closer hits the top of the stretch on the outside, the race for first is usually already over.
So, the winner should come from just off the pace.
Battle tested horses appear to have the advantage, too, as 19 out of the last 20 Preakness winners ran in the Kentucky Derby. Also, where a horse finished can be an overrated statistic as eight of those 19 finished fifth or worse in the Derby and Louis Quatorze finished 16th.
Those looking forward to an upset probably will be disappointed. Almost 50 percent of the time the favorite has won the Preakness. Ten of the last 15 winners were either the first or second choice, and the longest shot ever to win the race paid $48.80. Only six horses with odds of 10/1 or more have won since 1927.
Winner - Considering his amazing past, I can't help but root for Smarty Jones. Original trainer Bob Camac and his wife were murdered by his wife's son on the porch of their home in December of 2001. Distraught by the loss of their friend, husband and wife owners Patricia and Roy Chapman decided to get nearly out of the business, selling all but two of their horses. Smarty Jones, of course, was one of them, and hired to train him was John Servis, who Camac held in high regard. If that isn't interesting enough, Smarty Jones is lucky to be alive after fracturing his skull rearing in a training gate last July.
As of Wednesday evening, the forecast in Baltimore Saturday called for an 80 percent chance of rain, and Smarty Jones has won the Arkansas and Kentucky derbies on sloppy tracks. The Kentucky Derby winner has prevailed in five of the last seven Preakness Stakes, second time Lasix should improve this horse, and the last undefeated, Seattle Slew, went on to win the Triple Crown.
Place - Lion Heart. My Kentucky Derby pick excelled on that muddy track, finishing second. Speed horse Lion Heart has never finished worse than second, and will again have the lead going into the stretch.
Show - Imperialism. This closer also likes sloppy tracks and experienced trouble before ending up a strong third in the Kentucky Derby.
Superfecta - One could argue that the field is tougher in the Preakness than in the Kentucky Derby because of the additions of Rock Hard Ten and Eddington. Both horses are lightly raced, come from just off the pace and have never finished worse than third. With jockey Gary Stevens flying in from France just for this race and fellow Hall of Fame jock Jerry Bailey on board, these horses must be considered as contenders.
Joe Ellison is the Nevada Appeal Betting Columnist. Contact him at email@example.com.