What a difference a year makes for Team Valor International. A mere year ago, their talented colt, Animal Kingdom, had just won the Kentucky Derby with a late stretch run to upset the field at odds of 20-1 after a perfect trip. Everyone was shooting for them in the Preakness, with the Triple Crown dormant since Affirmed achieved the feat in 1978.
This year, Team Valor enters Went The Day Well in today's 137th running of the Grade 1 Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore after a rough trip and late close for fourth place in the Run for the Roses. This week I watched an overhead replay of the race and it became apparent to me how well Went The Day Well ran on Derby Day. He started picking off horses from the top of the stretch where he was 10 lengths behind the front running Bodemeister in ninth place, and finished only 2 1/2 lengths behind the eventual winner, I'll Have Another.
Trainer Graham Motion lamented what could have been had his horse not broken badly at the start of the Derby.
"It's extraordinary to me to think that with a cleaner trip we could have come very close to winning the Derby two years in a row. I think Went The Day Well is a horse that still hasn't been completely exposed. He just seems to improve every time I run him," said Motion.
It doesn't hurt that he has jockey Johnny Velazquez aboard either. Velazquez will be inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame this summer in Saratoga, and he also rode Animal Kingdom at Pimlico last year to a gut-wrenching second-place finish behind Shackleford in Preakness 136. If he learned anything last year it was not to fall too far behind the front runner, likely to be Bodemeister, as the distance is 1/1 6th-mile shorter than the Derby distance.
The question a handicapper has to answer about the talented Bodemeister is, does he have enough in the tank after two straight races where he has been fully exerted? His impressive back-to-back efforts in the Arkansas Derby and in Louisville certainly could take its toll on the son of Empire Maker. Trainer Bob Baffert, winner of five Preakness Stakes, entered Lookin at Lucky two years ago after a brutal trip in the Derby where he was banged around from his rail post and he won easily at Old Hilltop.
Bodemeister will be in the same No. 7 post as Lucky, and Baffert was very pleased with the draw, held on Wednesday evening, as he did not want to be stuck on the inside "where you have to use your horse a little bit." He is a definite win threat based on the shortened distance and the chance he could get loose on the lead.
The horse that has had the brightest spotlight on him this week is the only horse with a chance at ending the 33-year Triple Crown drought, I'll Have Another. He bested two long term streaks by the winning the Derby from post No. 19 and becoming the first Santa Anita Derby winner since Sunday Silence in 1989 to wear the roses. Should he prevail in Baltimore, the hype and momentum to the Test of the Champion in New York in June will be incredible.
The chance that he will get the same dream trip, however, that he did in the Derby is highly unlikely. How he deals with Bodemeister's speed in the early going could also play a factor in the race's outcome. Regardless, trainer Doug O'Neill is ready to take on all comers, although he seems to be focused on Bodemeister based on his post-draw comments.
"Being outside of the legitimate speed, most jockeys would be real happy with that," said O'Neill. "It's in [Bodemeister's jockey] Mike Smith's hands to set the pace. For whatever reason, if he breaks slow or decides not to go, we'll take the lead and take it from there. I'm confident. You never know, but as long as we continue to train like our horse has trained, we won't be that far off Bodemeister. If anything, Bodemeister might be behind us early. I could see him chasing us, I really could."
With five new horses, joining six returning Derby horses, it's important you pay attention to the "new shooters." In nine of the past 10 years, a horse that did not run in the Derby has hit the board in the Preakness.
Of the five new shooters, I favor Teeth Of The Dog and Zetterholm as contenders and intra-race exotic plays. After breaking his maiden at Gulfstream Park, Teeth Of The Dog finished third in the Wood Memorial behind highly-regarded Gemologist and Alpha. This is only his fifth career race and the thing about 3-year-old colts is they tend to improve over time and his patterns show that he is fit and ready to run a big one.
Zetterholm comes into the race on the heels of three straight wins, one a non-graded stake for trainer Rick Dutrow, who won the Preakness in 2008 with Big Brown. "I want to win a big one. He's a late April foal, so he's a late-maturing horse. He's a stretch-running horse. Hopefully, it's our turn to shine."
The other key change to note is Daddy Nose Best regains regular rider Julien Leparoux, who rode Union Rags in the Derby for trainer Steve Asmussen. Daddy Nose Best will attempt to become Asmussen's third Preakness champion, and join Curlin (2007) and Rachel Alexandra (2009) in that club.
Post Time Selections: 1 -- Went The Day Well; 2 -- Bodemeister; 3 -- Teeth Of The Dog; 4 -- I'll Have Another
Gene Kershner is a Buffalo-based turf writer and handicapper who blogs at equispace.blogspot.com. He posts every Friday at the Sports, Ink blog at www.buffalonews.com and can be found on Twitter (@EquiSpace).