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Preakness Pace Forecast: Cloudy

by Jeremy Plonk

September 30, 2020

The skies are expected to be clear at Old Hilltop on Saturday as Pimlico hosts the Preakness for the 145th time. But forecasting the pace of the race figures to be more dicey. The merry stroll Authentic went on in the Kentucky Derby remains one of the possibilities in the encore, but it’s one of many plausible looks. Pace makes the race; and if you figure this one out, you likely get the financial prize.

Here’s how I see the contenders on preferred running styles.

Speed: Authentic

Press: Art Collector, Swiss Skydiver, Ny Traffic, Thousand Words

Middle: Jesus’ Team, Liveyourbeastlife, Pneumatic

Closer: Excession, Mr. Big News, Max Player

That rundown looks a lot like the Kentucky Derby, where Authentic was the only horse committed to the front. And both races start at the far end of the homestretch with a massive run to the clubhouse turn, providing ample time for a horse with Authentic’s speed to overcome a less-than-perfect start and still wrestle command – precisely what happened in Louisville.

But three members of the ‘press’ corps here, all but Ny Traffic, are new to the scene at Pimlico.

It’s the biggest Triple Crown mount of Brian Hernandez Jr.’s life aboard Art Collector and he could be tasked with doing the dirty work in attacking Authentic. Trainer Tommy Drury says the horse’s pace versatility could come in handy, and that’s true. It also could lead to indecision.

We’ve seen Ny Traffic twice try to chase to no avail in the Haskell and Derby when ridden by the hyper-aggressive Paco Lopez. Now local veteran Horacio Karamanos takes over, and while a strong speed jock as well, you can’t see him being even more Paco than Paco.

Meanwhile, Thousand Words and jockey Florent Geroux can’t be expected to attack Baffert stablemate Authentic … especially if you recall the blocking formation that pairing provided Justify in the 2018 Belmont. Plus, Thousand Words simply isn’t as naturally fast or brilliant as Authentic. It would take a kamikaze mission, or an adverse reaction to going blinkers on (which I completely don’t understand here), for Thousand Words to be the pace thorn for Authentic.

And then there’s the filly Swiss Skydiver, whose jockey Tyler Gaffalione didn’t want to give up opening weekend at Keeneland. She winds up with the oft-aggressive Robby Albarado, years removed from relevance in racing’s big events. Does Albarado want to go out in a blaze of glory in attack mode (and finish first or last), or try to resurrect his waning career by riding conservatively and giving his filly every chance to be good enough if she can?

So where does the pressure on Authentic come from? I mentioned earlier this was Brian Hernandez’s biggest Triple Crown ride, but not in his career. That came in the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic of 2012 when piloting Fort Larned. When faced against heavily favored Bob Baffert speedster Game On Dude, Hernandez aggressively sent Fort Larned to the lead, and when Game On Dude broke poorly, it led to a wire-to-wire upset on the big stage. Art Collector is in a similar post, similar field size and similar pressure cooker to what Hernandez experienced with Fort Larned the last time he was in this type of situation. He didn’t back down then, and my guess is that he won’t on Saturday.

I look for Art Collector to go after Authentic from the start, and may the best horse win. This does not compute to a 3,4 or 5-way pace scrum in my projection. The top 2 will duke it out, which sometimes welcomes a closer to split them late in the exacta when 1 wanes. But I’ll be surprised if it melts down and compromises both, who appear to have a solid gap between them and the rest of the field on talent.

The Preakness rarely ever melts down to a deep closer. In the last 20 years, the only way-back types to win this race were Point Given, Curlin and Exaggerator, the latter freaking in the mud in 2016. When you look at the horses from the middle or back of this pack, none of them come close to warming up those kind of names.