Preakness Stakes storylines: Will Mystik Dan be the next Triple Crown winner?

Now that it’s confirmed that Kentucky Derby winner Mystik Dan is going to run in Saturday’s Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, the talk of a possible Triple Crown can start. Actually, it’s more of a whisper than talk.

Mystik Dan barely held on by a nose while winning the Kentucky Derby. And, he had the perfect trip. Now he’ll be facing the horse that beat him in the Arkansas Derby. And, he’s running on only two weeks rest.

Even with all those negatives, there is still a case to be made that a Triple Crown is within reach of Mystik Dan. First, the Preakness Stakes race is a sixteenth-of-a-mile shorter than the Kentucky Derby. As for the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes, it’s neither 1 ½ miles or at Belmont. Because of the construction at Belmont, the signature race is being moved to Saratoga, N.Y., and will be run at 1 ¼ miles. Race officials didn’t want to start the race on a turn so they shortened it. We know Mystik Dan can handle 1 ¼ miles, even if barely.

There is already discussion that this is not a legitimate Triple Crown, especially if two of the races are at the same distance and some of the best horses were kept out of the Kentucky Derby because of Churchill Down’s ban on trainer Bob Baffert. In 2020, because of COVID, the Belmont was run first at 1 1/8 miles, the Kentucky Derby second in September, followed by the Preakness Stakes about a month later.

The fact is that only one horse can win this year’s Triple Crown and that is Mystik Dan.

A look at five of the other storylines that are likely to dominate Preakness week.

Who’s expected to be the favorite?

That honor is usually filled by the winner of the Kentucky Derby. But all the attention is on Muth, who was ineligible to run at Churchill Downs because he is trained by Baffert. Muth won the Arkansas Derby by two lengths over Just Steel, who was 4 ¼ lengths ahead of Mystik Dan. Just Steel, who is scheduled to run the Preakness was 17th in the Derby.

Muth, a $2 million purchase by Amr Zedan, has won four of six races and finished second in the other two. He was second to Fierceness in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

“He was a precocious 2-year-old,” Baffert said. “And when he runs, he shows up. He runs his race every time, first or second. He has a lot of quality and he just keeps getting better and better.”

Muth opened as an 8-5 favorite on Monday with Mystik Dan at a 5-2 second choice.

Why can Baffert run in the Preakness and not the Derby?

Baffert is under no suspension or sanction by any state or national regulatory body. The beef against him is only by Churchill Downs Inc., which currently has him in the third year of a ban originally said to be two years. It stems from a positive medication test by Medina Spirit after winning the 2021 Kentucky Derby. Churchill Downs says he hasn’t shown enough contrition or accepted responsibility. Baffert says he has served his time and didn’t do anything wrong. Baffert has had no medication violations since then.

After the 2021 positive, he was allowed to run in that year’s Preakness but under a stricter than normal testing policy. He passed every test. He was banned from that year’s Belmont, which was a pretty easy decision for the New York Racing Assn. because he wasn’t going to enter any horses in the race. He was reinstated for the next year. If Medina Spirit had also won the Preakness — he finished third — would the NYRA have banned him? We’ll never know.

Baffert did serve a 90-day suspension in 2022 as a result of the Medina Spirit positive, which was honored by every state. He returned to racing on July 3 of that year and can race anywhere in the world … except tracks owned by Churchill Downs Inc.

Wasn’t Pimlico supposed to be torn down?

Some might argue it’s been in the process of being torn down for the last decade. But, yes, it was supposed to be gone a long time ago. The place is simply a dump, a charming dump, but an unrepaired relic of the past for quite some time. The track surface is in good shape, though.

The track was owned by The Stronach Group, which also owns Santa Anita, who has transferred ownership of the Pimlico to the state of Maryland. TSG will maintain intellectual rights to the Preakness through 2026. Last week Gov. Wes Moore signed a bill that allows $400 million of state bonds to be used to rebuild the track.

Major demolition was supposed to start this year but has been delayed and next year’s 150th running of the Preakness will be the last at the current structure. The Preakness will move to Laurel while construction is underway. Optimists say a year, realists say two years.

How often does the same horse win the Derby and Preakness?

It hasn’t happened since 2018 when Justify won the Triple Crown. But over the last 91 years it has happened about 40% of the time. We arbitrarily picked 1932 as the starting point because that is the first time it happened when Burgoo King took the first two legs before an injury forced him out of the Belmont. Before that the order was not always the same and the spacing was as short as a week at times. Plus, the Preakness took a couple years off.

Thirteen horses have won all three legs and another 23 won twice but fell short or didn’t compete in the Belmont. In recent times, there has been a strong California component to winning this double. Going back to 1997 and 1998 you had Silver Charm and Real Quiet, who both ran in Southern California and were trained by Baffert. In 1999, Wayne Lukas campaigned Charismatic on the California circuit for local owners Bob and Beverly Lewis. Baffert started training War Emblem just before the Derby in 2002.

Then it was New York’s turn with Funny Cide (2003), Smarty Jones (2004) and Big Brown (2008). Doug O’Neill picked the California run up with I’ll Have Another in 2014 before the lightly raced California Chrome won the first two legs in 2014 for Art Sherman. Triple Crown winners American Pharoah (2015) and Justify, both trained by Baffert, were the last two.

Give me an underdog to root for?

That’s easy, either of the horses trained by 88-year-old Wayne Lukas. (Only people not in the know use the D. before his name.) Lukas has Just Steel, who finished 17th in the Derby, and Seize the Grey, who won the Pat Day Mile on Derby Day at Churchill Downs. Both horses are 15-1 on the morning line.

Lukas defies his age on a daily basis. He walks with a cane but gets on his horse every day to supervise workouts. He has won the Kentucky Derby four times, the Preakness six times and the Belmont four times. He can always be found at Pimlico sitting in a folding chair waiting for people to come by and say hello.

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