'New shooters' in Preakness typically fall short against Derby-tested contenders

BALTIMORE — As is the case with many of Thoroughbred racing's prestigious events, the Preakness Stakes has its share of unique traditions.

Some, like the blanket of black-eyed Susans and the singing of Maryland, My Maryland, are historic staples of the 136-year-old race.

More recently, lamenting the two-week turnaround between the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes has become almost a rite of passage for trainers as they ready their horses for the second jewel of the Triple Crown.

For horsemen who are sending their Kentucky Derby runners on to the 13⁄16-mile Preakness, getting their contenders to maintain their form after running what is often the toughest race of their lives is commonly cited as one of the biggest concerns in the process.

Although giving horses more time between starts has become a practice among trainers, recent history suggests all the fretting done over the short rest leading up to the Preakness might be for naught.

Dating to Gate Dancer's victory in 1984, there have been just three Preakness Stakes winners who did not first contest the Kentucky Derby. One of those horses, the champion filly Rachel Alexandra in 2009, did win the Kentucky Oaks two weeks before her milestone triumph at Pimlico, leaving Red Bullet (2000) and Bernardini (2006) as the only real "new shooters" to be successful in the Preakness having skipped the grind of 14 days earlier.

"Someone pointed this out to me that the record is pretty good if you run them back," said trainer Nick Zito, who won the Preakness in 1996 with Louis Quatorze and is bringing Dialed In into the race this year off an eighth-place finish in the Kentucky Derby. "It's a very deceiving thing. I think last year I made a mistake not bringing (2010 Kentucky Derby runner-up) Ice Box back but ... all horses are different. It's a good question" why new shooters aren't as successful.

In the absence of hard and fast answers, there are some who see the trend as proof the Derby does, indeed, bring together the best horses of a generation — even if the horse perceived to be the best doesn't always win that day.

Thus, if you have a horse who for whatever reason wasn't ready to handle the 11/4-mile gut check of Derby Day, expecting that youngster to take down a similar group just two weeks later might be asking too much.

"A lot of times the best horses are running in the Derby so you know of the best horses running back in the Preakness, it wouldn't be a surprise that they're going to win," said trainer Todd Pletcher, who won the Derby with Super Saver last season and this year will saddle Dance City, one of nine 2011 Preakness entrants who skipped the first Saturday in May.

"Some of the new shooters aren't maybe as good as some of the horses who ran in the Derby, but you still see a mixed group of horses who win the Preakness that ran in the Derby.

"You'll have some who ran horribly in the Derby who will rebound with a big race and some that are obviously in terrific form and check off that second leg. But you will occasionally have those horses who have to come back in two weeks, and they're just not quite ready for it."

The obvious advantage a horse who sat out the Kentucky Derby might have over one who didn't is they aren't worn out by both the cavalry- charge nature of the race and the taxing grind just to get there.

Even a horse who didn't run up to par in the Kentucky Derby, though, might be in better position to deliver a stronger Preakness outing than a fresh contender. Not only does a horse gain invaluable foundation, but those who might have had a rough trip or are a race away from their best effort get a chance to fine-tune.

"I think we work very hard to get horses to the Derby ... yet sometimes we're behind a little bit," said Hall of Famer and five-time Preakness Stakes-winning trainer D. Wayne Lukas. "Sometimes we're not where we want to be, and we come in here and it gives you another two weeks maybe to sharpen them a bit.

"(Trainer) Bob Baffert was telling me this morning how much more comfortable he feels with (Midnight Interlude) in this race here because he's got him further down the base path than he was for the Derby. I think that happens to a number of them."

Favorable as the numbers may be for Derby entrants making the Baltimore trip, getting a horse to peak twice in a two-week period is still a bear of a task.

But even those who bemoan the timing issue are starting to realize they've got somewhat of a happy problem on their hands.

"Two weeks would bother anybody," said Graham Motion, trainer of Kentucky Derby winner and Preakness Stakes morning-line favorite Animal Kingdom. "It's not something you set out to do, to run back in two weeks when a horse has run the best race of his career. It's not a natural thing to do but ... let's hope we don't break the mold."