Training rider David Nava rides Kentucky Derby winner and Preakness Stakes… (Steve Helber / Associated…)
The race that exists to further the drama of a Triple Crown pursuit will load 14 horses into the starting gate shortly before 3:30 p.m. Pacific time Saturday. They will break, under partly cloudy skies, and all eyes in the 136th Preakness will be on No. 11, Animal Kingdom.
The Kentucky Derby winner, trained by Graham Motion and ridden by John Velazquez, can make lots of people in the sport happy. Nothing short of Zenyatta stirs the public pot over horse racing like a Triple Crown contender. Most racing fans will be rooting for Animal Kingdom. The people who run the third leg at Belmont Park will be on their knees, praying.
Animal Kingdom is like almost all other Derby winners going into the Preakness. He is as much hyped as he is unproven. He squirted out of the usual scrum at the top of the home stretch at Churchill Downs two weeks ago and won impressively by 2¾ lengths.
But as racing fans know who have waited since 1978 for another Triple Crown winner, that may mean nothing.
There has been much discussion about Derby favorite Dialed In, who came from 19th (last) to eighth with a final half-mile of just over 47 seconds. That's lightning in a saddle. His handlers are now calling that the "best eighth-place finish in the history of the Derby." They explain that he was so far back because the pace of the race was so slow and they couldn't change that because his running style is a Zenyatta-like closing rush.
The Preakness oddsmaker has Animal Kingdom the 2-1 favorite and Dialed In next at 9-2.
Animal Kingdom has yet to be seen in these parts. His home is 60 miles away at Fair Hill Training Center, reportedly somewhat of a quiet horses' heaven, and Motion will van him in Saturday morning, departing around 5 a.m. That could be more dramatic than the race itself, because the rules say the horse has to be on site by 7 a.m. It could give headline writers a dream moment: "Gridlock wins Preakness, And that's not a horse."
The run-up to the race is always a scramble to find out more about the animals and their people.
Animal Kingdom owner Barry Irwin offered some insight into his horse's personality.
"We had a congressman visit him at Fair Hill," Irwin said. "He bit the congressman and the congressman said he must be a Democrat."
Trainer Bob Baffert, who won the Preakness last year with Lookin At Lucky, has Santa Anita Derby winner Midnight Interlude here and has expressed amazement at his horse's 16th-place finish in the Kentucky Derby. "We're going to give him one more shot," Baffert said. "In the Derby, we had a loaded gun and no powder."
Baffert, seldom outdone in the quip department, was topped by owner Arnold Zetcher, who said, "We decided to use the Kentucky Derby as a prep race for the Preakness."
Midnight Interlude was given morning line odds of 15-1, out of the No. 7 gate. The other starter with a California connection is Mr. Commons, trained by John Shirreffs. Mr. Commons will start in the outside gate in the 14-horse field and got 20-1 odds.
"He was 21st in money for the Kentucky Derby," Shirreffs said, "and had he made the top 20, we would have run him." Mr. Commons finished third in the Santa Anita Derby, and Shirreffs said that jockey Mike Smith told him afterward that, heading for home, he thought we'd win by five lengths.
Smith, who was on the wonderland Zenyatta ride with Shirreffs the last two years, will not ride Mr. Commons in the Preakness. He will be aboard Astrology, a 15-1 starter of trainer Steve Asmussen, who won this race with Curlin in 2007 and Rachel Alexandra in 2009.
The third choice in the race, Mucho Macho Man, and longer shot King Congie will draw lots of sentimental backing.
Mucho Macho Man, 6-1 on the morning line, is trained by 41-year-old Kathy Ritvo. In the winter of 2008, suffering from cardiomyopathy, Ritvo was near death as she waited for a new heart in a hospital. She got one in what her doctors described as the likely last week of her life. Now, she is back at full speed, both training and telling her story.
"I'll tell it as often as I need to," she says, "if it helps other people."
King Congie, a 20-1 shot being ridden by Robby Albarado, the jockey who was replaced on Animal Kingdom just prior to the Kentucky Derby, is named for Congie DeVito. He was the sales rep for West Point Thoroughbreds. Last year, he was given the job of selling one of their scrawny horses, tried hard and eventually asked, for his efforts, that the horse be named after him. Thus, King Congie, who stayed with West Point, filled out and won the Tropical Park Derby, a $100,000 stakes race Jan. 1 at Calder Park.
DeVito, a quadriplegic who had a brittle-bone disease and spent his entire life in a wheelchair, died Feb. 16 at age 35.
Shackleford, who led much of the Kentucky Derby and ended up fourth, will share 12-1 odds with Dance City, whose best moment was third in the Arkansas Derby. Sway Away is at 15-1 and part of that is having top jockey Garrett Gomez aboard.
Flashpoint, who didn't break his maiden until Jan. 11, will go off at 20-1. Norman Asbjornson, Isn't He Perfect and Concealed Identity round out the field at 30-1.
Concealed Identity is owned in part by Linda Gaudet and trained by her husband, Edmond. The horse's exercise rider is one of the Gaudet children. Nor does the family connection end with jockey Sheldon Russell.
"I'm dating the Gaudets' daughter," Russell said.