New shooters historically up against it in Preakness

Profile Picture: Kellie Reilly

May 17th, 2016

It’s a rite of spring for Triple Crown fans: the allure of the “new shooter,” the fresh-faced talent who didn’t compete in the Kentucky Derby (G1) for one reason or another, but now shows up with designs on crashing the party in the Preakness (G1).

That appeal may be diminished this time around, given an impeccable Derby winner in Nyquist who spearheaded an exceptionally logical result at Churchill Downs.

Still, Preakness 141 has several new shooters, led by one who’s just the type to turn heads – Stradivari. The Todd Pletcher trainee sports a fine pedigree, as a son of Medaglia d’Oro and multiple Grade 2 victress Bending Strings, and he’s won his last pair by 25 lengths combined.

Moreover, Hall of Famer Bob Baffert isn’t one to be overlooked, especially after winning his sixth Preakness with 2015 Triple Crown star American Pharoah. He’s been pointing for the Preakness all along with Collected, who enters off two decisive scores in the Sunland Park Festival of Racing (the substitute race for the Sunland Derby) and Lexington (G3).

But before getting captivated, a look at Preakness history advises us to be careful of the siren song. Although new shooters can often run well, they’re up against it as win candidates.

In the past 50 runnings of the Preakness, only seven “new shooters” have upstaged horses coming out of the Derby: Bee Bee Bee (1972), Codex (1980), Aloma’s Ruler (1982), Deputed Testamony (1983), Red Bullet (2000), Bernardini (2006), and Rachel Alexandra (2009).

The upsets by Bee Bee Bee (18-1) and Deputed Testamony (14-1) had a common thread: both were Marylanders who benefited by catching a sloppy track at Pimlico.

Bee Bee Bee has gone down in history as the horse who thwarted the Triple Crown bid of Riva Ridge. My colleague Vance Hanson critiques the standard interpretation that blames the slop for Riva’s Waterloo. However you come down on the revisionist school regarding Riva Ridge, it’s beyond dispute that the slop elevated the front-running local Bee Bee Bee.

Deputed Testamony didn’t topple such a historically significant Derby winner when getting a dream run up the rail and leaving Sunny’s Halo behind in sixth in 1983. With the benefit of hindsight, we can also see that the division was still sorting itself out at that point in the season. The respective third and fourth from the Derby, Caveat and Slew o’ Gold, both skipped the Preakness and went on to run one-two in the Belmont (G1). Caveat unfortunately sustained a career-ending ligament injury in the Belmont, and Slew o’ Gold ultimately earned the title of champion 3-year-old colt.

While divisional flux was a contributing element in 1983, it was the decisive factor in the Preakness won by Aloma’s Ruler.

If ever a Preakness were scripted to be a refutation of the Derby, the 1982 renewal was it, for the division was in total disarray. The upset Derby winner Gato Del Sol didn’t bother to turn up at Pimlico, and Derby placegetters Laser Light and Reinvested, themselves longshots at Churchill Downs, were uninspiring. Hence new shooters scored a clean sweep of the Preakness trifecta, with the 6-1 Aloma’s Ruler upsetting 1-2 favorite Linkage under an astute front-running ride by 16-year-old Jack Kaenel. The top two had long been regarded as classic contenders. Linkage, the Blue Grass (G1) romper, would have been a prime threat in the Derby. But connections deliberately chose to pass on Churchill in favor of the Preakness. Aloma’s Ruler had burst onto the scene as early as January, when handing Canadian superstar Deputy Minister a shock defeat in the Bahamas S. An ankle injury cost him much of the spring, but Aloma’s Ruler captured the Withers (G2) one week before the Preakness. Although new shooters, both Aloma’s Ruler and Linkage had proven class.

Three other victorious new shooters – Codex, Red Bullet, and Rachel Alexandra – were accomplished enough to contest the Derby. Only connections’ decision-making kept them out of the Run for the Roses.

Codex captured back-to-back Grade 1s in the Santa Anita Derby and Hollywood Derby (then held on dirt in spring). Not nominated for the Kentucky Derby (likely because owner/breeder John Nerud believed the Derby’s 1 1/4 miles were too demanding on a 3-year-old on the first Saturday in May), Codex bided his time until the Preakness. His infamous “mugging” of Derby-winning filly Genuine Risk at Pimlico shouldn’t obscure the fact that he was a very worthy classic victor, as his 5-2 odds suggest.

Red Bullet earned his way into the Triple Crown picture by landing his first three starts, including the Gotham (G3), and finishing second to Fusaichi Pegasus in the Wood Memorial (G2). But because he didn’t race at two, owner/breeder Frank Stronach and trainer Joe Orseno thought it was wiser not to pitch him into the Derby. Given a better ride in the Preakness than he got in the Wood (where he was taken out of his game by forcing the pace), Red Bullet emphatically turned the tables on “FuPeg.” While that burst the bubble, it wasn’t that much of a surprise coming from a horse of his profile. There’s a very good reason why he was the 6-1 second choice.

Rachel Alexandra was the buzz of Derby Week, even though she was running in the Kentucky Oaks (G1). After her record 20 1/4-length demolition of the fillies, and the 50-1 stunner pulled by Mine That Bird in a sloppy Derby, she had strong claims to be considered the best 3-year-old. Rachel was accordingly dispatched as the 9-5 favorite at Pimlico, where she bested Mine That Bird on the way to Horse of the Year honors.

I’ve left the remaining new shooter, Bernardini, for last because he’s a unique case. Had Derby winner Barbaro not suffered his catastrophic breakdown, he might well have won the Preakness, and the Triple Crown. At the same time, Bernardini proved to be a champion himself. Connections more aggressive than Godolphin and Tom Albertrani would probably have fast-tracked him to the Derby, rather than taking the more conservative route of the Withers/Preakness. In that respect, you could argue that Bernardini has that patient connections angle in common with the three new shooters just described.

To apply these case studies to Saturday’s renewal, we could get into a parlor game of trying to compare Stradivari to Bernardini, or Collected to Codex, but that would overlook the overarching point: the rarity of circumstances aligning in new shooters’ favor.

These seven, over the last 50 years, comprise a very small club compared to the 43 Preakness winners who had competed in the Derby. Of the 43, 22 were rebounding from Derby losses, and 21 are Derby winners who turned the double.

The Derby exacta was repeated in the Preakness in 1969 (Majestic Prince-Arts and Letters), 1987 (Alysheba-Bet Twice), 1989 (Sunday Silence-Easy Goer), 1998 (Real Quiet-Victory Gallop), 1999 (Charismatic-Menifee), and 2012 (I’ll Have Another-Bodemeister).

Moreover, the Derby trifecta was perfectly replicated in 1973 (Secretariat-Sham-Our Native) and 1978 (Affirmed-Alydar-Believe It). The 1997 Derby top three almost finished in the same order in Baltimore, but Free House and Captain Bodgit switched the minor awards behind Silver Charm. The 2007 Derby trifecta was reshuffled with Curlin on top of Street Sense and Hard Spun in the Preakness.

And in a number of years, various permutations of Derby veterans swept the top three (1971, 1990, 1991, 2012), four (1966, 1985, 1986, 1988, 2001), five (1970, 1975, 1976, 1987, 2013), and seven (1996) placings. (It wouldn’t be fair to include 1979, since there were no new shooters.)

It might be objected that perhaps the new shooters’ lack of success is a function of their number of representatives in the Preakness. After all, if most of the horses in the field were coming out of the Derby, mathematically you’d expect them to have a greater strike rate.

In fact, the opposite is true: over the past 20 years, new shooters have made up 52.3% of the Preakness fields (by my count, 114 of 218 starters), but have won only three times (15%). They’re actually underperforming relative to their numbers, from a win perspective. To be fair, they’ve found it much easier to hit the board, with new shooters finishing second or third in 12 of the last 20 years (and taking both minor awards in 2004, 2008, and 2015).

Yet their paucity of winners reflects the real reason behind the stat: except for unusual circumstances, the spring’s best 3-year-olds are in the Derby. The new shooters bear a heavy burden of proof to make the case that unusual circumstances apply.