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Mystik Dan favored in Preakness, but fresh faces pose upset threat

Updated May 16, 2024 - 10:07 pm

Kentucky Derby winner Mystik Dan will be favored in Saturday’s 149th Preakness Stakes following the scratch of morning-line choice Muth, but a follow-up victory is not assured with several fresh faces joining the fray and two Derby also-rans returning for another go.

Muth, the original 8-5 morning line Preakness favorite trained by Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, was withdrawn from the second leg of the Triple Crown after developing a 103-degree temperature Wednesday shortly after shipping from Southern California to Baltimore for the 1 3/16th-mile race.

That leaves seven rivals aiming to prevent the Kenny McPeek-trained Mystik Dan, listed at 8-5 in the revised morning line following Muth’s scratch, from returning to the winner’s circle at historic Pimlico Race Course. That includes the Baffert-trained Imagination, beaten by a neck by Stronghold as runner-up in the Santa Anita Derby on April 6.

Mystik Dan proved he is talented and courageous in his Derby victory, saving ground behind the dueling leaders in the early going under jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. and then spearing through a tight opening on the rail entering the stretch before prevailing by two noses over closers Sierra Leone and Japanese runner Forever Young, neither of whom will run in the Preakness.

Mystik Dan ran a similar race when recording an overwhelming victory in the muddy Southwest Stakes on Feb. 3 at Oaklawn, stalking from the rail before finding an opening at the top of the stretch and rallying powerfully to the wire to finish eight lengths clear of Preakness rival Just Steel.

But as his race in the Arkansas Derby on March 30 at Oaklawn showed, the son of Goldencents has an Achilles’ heel when he doesn’t get his preferred rail-skimming ride. In that 1⅛-mile race, he was caught three to four paths wide on both turns and had to rally late to finish third, 6¼ lengths behind Muth and 4¼ lengths behind Just Steel.

Weather and the rail

The good news for fans of the Derby winner is that he should be able to get to the rail and secure a forward position in the Preakness, with three horses — Mugatu, Uncle Heavy and Catching Freedom — possessing little early speed drawn to his inside.

Mystik Dan also might get an assist from Mother Nature, with the National Weather Service forecasting a 70 percent chance of showers Saturday afternoon, raising the possibility that he will get the sort of wet track he clearly adores.

But there also are warning signs that handicappers should take into account before backing the 18-1 Derby winner at expected low odds. The first is that his preferred running style is now well known to his competitors, who can be expected to make sure the rail isn’t open as they turn into the stretch, forcing Hernandez Jr. to try to move Mystik Dan outside into possible traffic troubles.

Another is an anticipated moderate pace in the early stages of the Preakness. Baffert’s Imagination seems likely to show the way from his outside post, perhaps pressured a bit by Pat Day Mile winner Seize the Grey, but neither of those colts are need-the-lead runners and seem unlikely to engage in a speed duel.

That’s actually a bigger issue for the closers in the field — Catching Freedom and Tuscan Gold — than for Mystik Dan, who should be in a good striking position behind the leaders. But it could force Hernandez Jr. to move earlier than usual in an effort to reel in the front-runners, thus taking Mystik Dan out of his game.

Quick turnaround

The biggest impediment for Mystik Dan is one faced by the Derby winner and also-rans alike: the quick two-week turnaround between the Run for the Roses and the Preakness.

Modern thoroughbreds are raced far less often than their predecessors of decades past, and it is now quite rare for stakes winners to run back in less than a month from their most recent start.

That trend is illuminated by the recent history of the Preakness, with the last four runnings being won by fresher horses who did not contest the Kentucky Derby — National Treasure, Early Voting, Rombauer and Swiss Skydiver — with all but the latter beating that year’s Derby winner.

For that reason alone, I am looking at Tuscan Gold, one of the new faces on the Triple Crown trail, to spring a mild upset in the Preakness.

Though the pace scenario might not favor the Chad Brown-trained runner’s midpack running style, I am encouraged by Brown’s recent record in the Preakness. In addition to saddling 2022 winner Early Voting off a 41-day layoff, he sent a fresh Blazing Sevens into last year’s race only to lose by a head to National Treasure, who also skipped the Derby because of Baffert’s ongoing suspension by Churchill Downs.

Baffert’s Imagination also fits the fresh-face scenario, having last raced nearly 1½ months ago for a trainer with a record eight Preakness victories. But with the revised morning line listing Imagination as the second choice at 3-1 vs. Tuscan Gold’s the fourth choice at 9-2, I’m making price my deciding factor and will make a win wager if he stays at or above those odds.

In the exotics, I will key Tuscan Gold in exactas over Mystik Dan, Catching Freedom, Just Steel and Imagination. For trifectas, I will use Tuscan Gold and Imagination on top, with Mystik Dan, Tuscan Gold and Imagination in the place spot and Mugatu, Catching Freedom, Just Steel, Tuscan Gold and Imagination in the third slot.

Mike Brunker is a retired Review-Journal editor who now spends a good amount of time lounging poolside with the Daily Racing Form.

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