by Trevor Whenham - 05/10/2006
It's probably not fair, but I have very little respect for horses that contest the Preakness without first running in the Kentucky Derby. In part it's because I am desperate to see a Triple Crown winner and these Preakness invaders are another obstacle to my dream, but there's more to it than that. The Triple Crown is about tradition, and going straight to the Preakness seems to be thumbing your nose at that tradition. Beyond that, though, it just seems to me in my experience that the invaders are just a bad bet. Before I damn them forever, however, it's only fair that we look at the invaders from a few different angles to see if the picture gets any better.
The ultimate Preakness invader is a horse that went on to have a somewhat decent career. Man o' War started his three year old campaign at the Preakness. His owner, Samuel Riddle, was opposed to the Derby because he felt that it was too early in the year to go that distance. Skipping the first leg of the Triple Crown didn't hamper Man o' War too badly. He went on to win all 11 starts that year, including the Preakness and the Belmont.
The biggest question that I ask myself when a horse skips the Derby is why? With all the pomp and prestige of the Run for the Roses, a horse wouldn't skip it if its connections thought there was a reasonable chance of winning it. It's difficult then to consider a horse dangerous when it wasn't judged ready to face many of the same horses just two weeks earlier. Occasionally a horse has to miss the Derby because he doesn't have enough graded stakes earnings to make the 20-horse field, but more often than not that isn't the biggest factor. Most often the horse isn't in the Derby because it isn't good enough to be in the Derby.
So what's the biggest pro of skipping the Derby? The horse isn't coming back in just two weeks. The Derby is the longest race any of the horses will have run. The massive crowds and the giant field create an incredibly stressful situation for the horses. Coming back to race after just two weeks is a challenge for top horses at the best of times, but more so under these circumstances. Horses that skip the Derby often have an extra week or two of rest and have run in a much more low key race when they did run. Or so some people would have you believe. The fresh horse theory is thrown around all the time by experts in Preakness handicapping. This is what they're talking about.
The biggest con of skipping the Derby? The horse isn't coming back in just two weeks. Horses are trained to be in top form for the Derby. Two weeks later that fitness hasn't had time to fade, so Derby horses often come into the Preakness in great shape. If a trainer hadn't been aiming for the Derby the horse may not be as fit for the Preakness. The Preakness is contested in front of 100,000 screaming fans. That's no big deal for the horses that have been through the chaos of the Derby, but is totally foreign for the invaders. That gives the Derby starters another advantage.
When considering the invaders, my favorite year to call upon is 1996. There were 12 starters in the Preakness. Seven had contested the Derby and five had not. The invaders finished one after another, from 8th through 12th. I couldn't make my case any better if I tried. That's not an isolated incident, either. The very next year, the bottom five finishers in the field of 10 were the only invaders.
In the last 10 years, 111 horses have entered the Preakness. Of those, 52 have been Preakness invaders. That's 46.8 percent of all starters. Only one of those invaders has won, Red Bullet in 2000. Three more have finished 2nd, and four have come in to show. That's eight on the board out of 30 possible positions, or 26.7 percent of the top three spots in the last 10 years. Going all the way back to 1980, there have only been four invaders that have won the Preakness, and the other three occurred in 1980, 1982 and 1983. That all supports my belief that the fresh horse theory is just another way to throw your money away, and an effective one at that.
If the numbers are so dire, why do invaders seem to get more attention than they ultimately show they deserve nearly every year? My theory is that some people would rather get behind a new and fresh horse rather than analyze and rationalize the disappointing performance of the horses they were backing in the Derby. It's a grass-is-greener-on-the-other-side-of-the-fence type of situation. That's why an invader will often get odds that its past form, and ultimately its Preakness performance, can't justify.
As an example, look at the one invader that is mentioned at the top of the list in every article about the Preakness that has appeared in the last few days - Bernardini. The horse is owned by Sheik Mohammad al Maktoum, the filthy rich ruler of Dubai, and its trainer, Tom Albertrani, conditioned Deputy Glitters in the Derby, so a lot of the attention on the horse comes from the connections. The racing record is underwhelming. It didn't run until Jan. 7 this year, finishing fourth. It broke its maiden in March, and got a bruised foot and a cough for its efforts. Its lone stakes appearance was a win in the Withers at Aqueduct a week before the Derby, but that race was only over a mile. In my mind that horse will almost certainly be an underlay on Preakness day, because it would take very high odds to make the horse worth even a bit of my money.
So what's my point? Well, if you're a fresh horse theory believer, you won't have to worry about my bets pulling down your odds in the mutuel pool. I'll take a Derby horse in the Preakness any day.