By J.J. Hysell
With many of the top finishers from the dramatic Kentucky Derby bypassing Saturday's Preakness Stakes, the 144th edition appears to be a wide-open, competitive race.
Country House, awarded the Derby win after Maximum Security was disqualified for interference, is sidelined with an illness. It's the first time a Derby winner hasn't run in the Middle Jewel of the Triple Crown since 1996 when Grindstone was retired with an injury.
Maximum Security, who crossed the finish line first in the Derby but was placed 17th by the stewards, is now stabled at Monmouth Park, with his next race undetermined.
Four who competed in the Derby move on to Baltimore: Improbable (fourth), War of Will (seventh), Win Win Win (ninth) and Bodexpress (13th).
The slight cutback in distance to 1 3/16 miles could benefit favorite Improbable, who would give trainer Bob Baffert a record-breaking eight Preakness wins. Improbable also gets a boost with veteran Triple Crown-winning jockey Mike Smith aboard.
The key for the flashy chestnut with the recognizable blaze is a clean break and a fast start. With his mid-pack running style, he could get an optimal spot tracking the pace.
Of Baffert's seven Preakness victors, Point Given (2001) and Lookin at Lucky (2010) both won after Derby losses.
War of Will, who emerged from an eventful Derby trip relatively unscathed, will once again be running from the rail. Navigating from the rail in the Derby - where he broke from stall No. 2 - the colt and jockey Tyler Gaffalione were directly behind Maximum Security in the stretch when the stewards-cited infraction occurred. The athletic son of War Front, trained by Mark Casse, was forced to expend energy early because of the inside post. This distance should be ideal for the hard-luck colt.
Win Win Win, who wasn't a factor with a wide trip in the Derby, now must deal with starting all the way on the outside after drawing the 13th post position on Wednesday. Prior to the Derby, he was not worse than third in six starts.
Bodexpress seeks to be the first maiden - a winless horse - to reach the Preakness winner's circle since Refund in 1888. The Florida-Derby runner-up will have Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez in the irons.
The most intriguing of the non-Derby contenders is locally-based Alwaysmining. The gelding, who seeks to be the first Maryland-bred to win the Preakness since Deputed Testamony in 1983, boasts a six-race win streak. Most of his wins have come in wire-to-wire fashion, so look for the Kelly Rubley trainee to be a prominent pace factor in his graded stakes debut.
Along with Alwaysmining, there's pace aplenty as the Brad Cox-trained Warrior's Charge, winner of two straight, and Anothertwistafate will likely be forwardly-placed. Two-time Preakness-winning jockey Javier Castellano will be aboard Warrior's Charge for the first time.
Cox's other Preakness entry, Lexington Stakes winner Owendale, appears sharp off a layoff with a brilliant bullet work - the fastest at that distance on that day - at Churchill Downs on May 11.
Also fresh off a layoff will be Bourbon War, fourth in the Florida Derby on March 30 in his last race. The well-bred Mark Hennig runner has closed from far off the pace in his last three races and is adding blinkers for the Preakness. But don't expect a change in style. Hennig said the equipment change is not to encourage speed, but rather to increase the colt's focus.
Six-time Preakness-winning trainer D. Wayne Lukas will send longshot Market King to the gate. Although 11th in the Blue Grass Stakes in his most recent start, the colt was third behind Omaha Beach - the Derby favorite until scratched - and champion Game Winner in the Rebel Stakes.
Last year, the Lukas-trained Bravazo was discounted at 15-1 but finished just a half-length behind eventual Triple Crown champion Justify.
Market King is in experienced hands as Lukas, 83, teams up with the oldest jockey to ride in the Kentucky Derby, 58-year-old Jon Court.
Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen, who won the Preakness twice with greats Curlin (2007) and Rachel Alexandra (2009), brings Laughing Fox to Pimlico on a quick turnaround. The chestnut, fourth in the Arkansas Derby, automatically qualified for the Preakness with a win in the Oaklawn Park Invitational on May 4.
Signalman, who missed making the Kentucky Derby field by a nose when he finished third in the Blue Grass Stakes, joins the field well-rested off a six-week layoff.
Everfast, fifth in the Pat Day Mile on the Kentucky Derby undercard in his most recent start, is best known for his second-place finish at 128-1 in the Holy Bull Stakes. The versatile Dale Romans trainee will have Joel Rosario aboard and will be seeking his first win since his debut last August at Ellis Park.
Post time is 6:48 p.m. ET.
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