Eyes on Preakness: Things to watch when race gets underway
BALTIMORE (AP) -- Start to finish, the 140th running of the Preakness Stakes will take less than two minutes. Post time for the second leg of the Triple Crown is 6:18 p.m.
Here are some things to watch (on NBC) - and ponder - as Kentucky Derby winner American Pharoah attempts to win the 1 3/16th-mile race and set up a Triple Crown try in three weeks at the Belmont Stakes.
Better known as the break, this could turn into the most critical part of the race. A stumble out of the gate by any of the eight starters likely ends any chance at victory. Jostling for position shortly afterward must also be minimal, or avoided altogether. This is especially true for the top three Derby finishers: American Pharoah, Dortmund and Firing Line. All three are expected to be on or near the lead heading into the first turn. Watch closely as Victor Espinoza works hard to get a quick start for Derby winner American Pharoah from the No. 1 post, a spot trainer Bob Baffert is not happy with. Why would he be? The last horse to win the Preakness from the No. 1 post was Tabasco Cat in 1994. Baffert knows stumbles well. His 2002 Derby and Preakness winner War Emblem stumbled at the start of the Belmont in his Triple Crown bid and finished eighth.
In racing lexicon, pace makes the race. As in: running too fast early sets the stage for closing rallies as speed horses tire in the stretch. In the Derby, Dortmund set the pace through moderate fractions, running the first half-mile in 47.34 seconds, with Firing Line and American Pharoah right behind him. They finished within three lengths of each other: American Pharoah, Firing Line (one length back) and Dortmund (three lengths back). Two years ago, Palace Malice ran the first half-mile two seconds faster - 45.33 seconds. Orb rallied from 17th place and won over a sloppy track. Palace Malice finished 12th. On Saturday, Divining Rod, who skipped the Derby, is among those with early speed. If he prompts quicker early fractions, American Pharoah and Dortmund - with inside posts - might not enjoy the same comfortable rhythm they had two weeks ago. If that happens, a closer to watch could be Danzig Moon, who finished fifth in the Derby.
Watch the Derby winner at all times. He's revved up and ready to go, and will be easy to spot from the No. 1 post. The brilliant colt has won five in a row by a combined 23 1/4 lengths, but his closest call came in the Derby - a hard-fought, one-length win over Firing Line. The big question is whether he can return on short rest and put in another winning performance. Watch the start, and if he's on or near the lead, expect him to be in the same spot in the stretch. And it's likely his Derby rivals - Firing Line and Dortmund - will be there with him. A win and American Pharoah would become the 14th horse with a Triple Crown chance since Affirmed won it in 1978. A loss, with Dortmund winning, means trainer Bob Baffert would still win his sixth Preakness, but he'd spoil his own Triple Crown chance.
Let's call him the X-factor. In the hours before Wednesday's post-position draw, this loser of 12 in a row was sold by American Pharoah's owner Ahmed Zayat to Brad Kelley's Calumet Farm, and then entered. The horse named for the Zayat is 20-1, but may be the quickest out of the gate. And he leaves from the No. 3 post, just outside Dortmund and two away from American Pharoah. The deal was orchestrated by Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, a six-time Preakness winner set to saddle his 41st starter in the second leg of the Triple Crown. Lukas won this race two years ago with Oxbow, wire to wire.
When there's a winner in the Preakness, a little after 6:20 p.m., we'll know whether it's Triple Time at the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes, or not. A win by American Pharoah? Let the hype begin! For the 14th time since Affirmed became the 11th and last to sweep the Derby, Preakness and Belmont in 1978, Belmont Park would become the center of the sports world in the days leading up to the Belmont on June 6. And, in the Preakness winner's circle, check out who's partying harder: owner Ahmed Zayat, trainer Bob Baffert or jockey Victor Espinoza. If he loses, it's wait `til next year, Triple Crown. Possible Belmont starters not in the Preakness include Frosted, Materiality, Carpe Diem, Madefromlucky, Frammento, Keen Ice and Mubtaahij.