November 25, 2020

Five points to ponder: 2020 Preakness Stakes

Authentic
Authentic wins the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs (Jamie Newell/TwinSpires)

As the conclusion of the longest-ever Triple Crown trail, Saturday’s Preakness Stakes (G1) doesn’t need much of a preamble. So let’s dive straight to the five points to ponder for this third jewel that’s also a “Win and You’re In” for the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1):

1. The Preakness remains a referendum on the Kentucky Derby winner.

Authentic refuted his skeptics with an outstanding effort in the Kentucky Derby (G1). The Bob Baffert trainee didn’t break that adroitly from his outside post, reminiscent of his lone loss in the Santa Anita Derby (G1), but regrouped with aplomb to take control. Setting a fast pace and rebuffing Tiz the Law, Authentic completed the 1 1/4-mile classic in a sprightly 2:00.61

Nor is there any doubt that the Derby star is maintaining his form coming into the Preakness. Both of his works in the interim were bullets, showing not only his well-being, but his sheer quality in going faster than it looked. Authentic projects another forward trip in the clear from post 9, and he stands to break straight not being on the far outside this time.

If all that adds up to Authentic being a genuine Derby winner and Preakness favorite, does it prove that he’s best of the crop? Or was he just best on that day? After all, Tiz the Law was off his peak, and Honor A. P., his Santa Anita Derby conqueror, was hopelessly out of position.

They’re not here, but the highly capable Art Collector is on the premises. And as my colleague Vance Hanson noted, the oft-cited “new shooter” designation doesn’t really apply. A similar point can be made regarding his Baffert stablemate Thousand Words, who was flourishing until he flipped over in the Derby paddock and got himself scratched, and Swiss Skydiver, who had every right to contest the Derby but took the Kentucky Oaks (G1) option.

2. Art Collector can lend substance to the Derby what-if.

The withdrawal of Art Collector just prior to Derby entry time was a big loss, principally because of his intrinsic merit but also for the tactical picture. The Blue Grass (G2) and Ellis Park Derby romper would have been right in the thick of contention early. In that scenario, does he kick on more strongly than Tiz the Law and pose a more dire threat to Authentic? Or does Authentic repel him too?

The answer to that counterfactual determines how you approach the Preakness. I think that Art Collector would have kept on and made Authentic find more than Tiz the Law did. The Preakness will test that hypothesis. With more speed than the two drawn to his inside at Pimlico, Art Collector can go forward from post 3, or stalk if Authentic wants the lead. But the beauty is that he has tactical adaptability, giving regular pilot Brian Hernandez options.

Any fitness concerns are allayed by a trio of strong works since his minor foot issue that cropped up early Derby Week, more a case of horrible timing than anything of import. Thus the pandemic-prompted extra time between the Derby and Preakness could benefit Art Collector most of all.

3. Thousand Words and Swiss Skydiver add to the more challenging pace dynamic.

Like Art Collector, Thousand Words and Swiss Skydiver have the kind of high cruising speed that can attend Authentic. And all three are drawn inside of the Derby winner. Unless a maturing Authentic can find his comfort zone stalking, he’ll arguably have to work harder to clear them early, unlike the lead that was virtually handed to him in the Derby.

Thousand Words has the “other Baffert” angle going for him, and he was Spendthrift’s Derby hope before the farm got involved in Authentic. Still, his negatives are clear, in that his winter form hasn’t held up at all, and his Shared Belief upset was arguably a case of capitalizing on favorable circumstances. Putting blinkers back on just adds another uncertain variable to the mix on a colt who’s cycling into peak form.

Swiss Skydiver can tout stronger credentials than Thousand Words, if you emphasize her two best points. Her runner-up effort to Art Collector in the Blue Grass is rock-solid, especially considering her tough front-running task, along with the fact she was well clear of future Pat Day Mile (G3) scorer Rushie and Derby third Mr. Big News. And she proved her stamina in the Alabama (G1).

The hesitation is that she couldn’t pass Shedaresthedevil in the Kentucky Oaks. My instinct is that the turnaround from the Alabama might have left her a little vulnerable– much as Tiz the Law was arguably still feeling the Travers (G1). While he’s refilling the tank, she’s right back at the wars in her stiffest task so far. No doubting she’s giving trainer Ken McPeek all the right signs or else he could have gone to Sunday’s Spinster (G1) or waited another week for the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup (G1). Sometimes you can’t tell until the crucible of a race, though.

4. Max Player might be the Derby alum most eligible to improve.

Mr. Big News uncorked an eye-catching move on the turn en route to his Derby third, and the prospect of another strong pace scenario bodes well for a colt who’s fired his best whenever Gabriel Saez is aboard.

On the other hand, Max Player had the more logical case going into the Derby, as the third to Tiz the Law in both the Belmont (G1) and Travers. But as soon as he drew inside at Churchill, Steve Asmussen expressed concern for a colt who wants to be outside, and that might have played a role in his belated fifth. Post 8 at Pimlico will make Max Player a lot more comfortable – possibly even enough to get a more sensible early position and be the best of the closers this time.

Ny Traffic, the Derby eighth, faces the toughest task of those trying to turn the tables. Although he came closest of anyone in this field to beating Authentic in the Haskell (G1) two back, he came out of the Derby with a cut and remained an uncertain runner almost until the entry deadline. The New York-bred worked well Sunday (his only post-Derby move) for Saffie Joseph to send him on, but there’s plenty of other quality speed here with a smoother preparation.

5. Pneumatic is on the upswing, but so is Liveyourbeastlife.

Upwardly mobile 3-year-olds can improve more than given credit for, and Pneumatic is on that kind of trajectory from his Matt Winn (G3) to the Belmont and Pegasus. His third in the Matt Winn was a hard-fought, battling effort from the start that might have left its mark in his Belmont fourth, and the Asmussen pupil responded to a freshening to take the Pegasus handily. Thus connections preferred not to wheel back for the Derby, but point for Pimlico to ensure he enters fresh again. At the same time, beating Jesus’ Team – the Haskell fourth and Jim Dandy (G2) third – does not stand out on paper, and Pneumatic needs to continue progressing to deal with the division’s elite.

Liveyourbeastlife strikes me as the less obvious dark horse, but no less intriguing. The Jorge Abreu trainee is coming from off the beaten path, since he spent the year in allowances rather than on the Derby trail. But he’s a different horse since stretching out to 9 furlongs. Liveyourbeastlife was an encouraging second in the Jim Dandy after losing position on the far turn and hitting his best stride late, and if you take the form through Jesus’ Team literally, he’s not that far off Pneumatic.

This positive view is very much influenced by my high opinion of Jim Dandy winner Mystic Guide, who’s bound for next week’s Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1), as well as by Liveyourbeastlife’s pedigree. The Ghostzapper half-brother to Grade 1 turfiste Time and Motion is out of Ellie’s Moment, herself a close relative of multiple Grade 1-winning millionaire Brian’s Time.

Excession is up against it making his first start since a post-surgery layoff. Last seen gaining on Nadal in the Mar. 14 Rebel (G2), he’s heavily dependent on a sloppy track, and the sunny forecast undercuts his hopes.