The Making of A Preakness Winner, by John Piassek

The Making of A Preakness Winner

John Piassek

May 17, 2016 


It’s that time of the year again: Preakness week! The second jewel of the Triple Crown will be held this Saturday at Pimlico, and it’s often considered to be the “truest” of the Triple Crown events. While the Derby is a 20-horse cavalry charge, and the Belmont is run at a 1 ½-mile distance that most of its entrants will never attempt again, the Preakness usually has a more normal-sized field (the field size has averaged 9 horses over the past four runnings), and is held at 1 3/16-miles, which is more in the scope of most of the fields.

The big question, of course, is what should you look for in a Preakness winner? Well, a near-inevitability is that the Preakness winner will run in the Kentucky Derby. In the past 25 runnings of the Preakness, 22 of them were won by Derby starters. Rachel Alexandra in 2009 (who won the Kentucky Oaks two weeks prior), Bernardini in 2006 (who went on to be named champion three-year-old), and Red Bullet in 2000 (who finished second in the Wood Memorial, and voluntarily skipped the Derby to be fresh for the Preakness) are the three exceptions.

However, it goes even deeper than that. In the last 20 years, 42 out of the 60 top-three finishers in the Preakness were exiting the Derby—a whopping 70%! In the 19 years that at least three Derby starters ran in the Preakness, at least two of them wound up in the top three sixteen times. To put it another way, 117 “new shooters” have tried the Preakness in the past 20 years. Only 18 of them came in the top three, for a mere 15.4% strike rate.

The reasoning makes sense. Most of the top three-year-olds are pointed towards, and run in, the Kentucky Derby. If a horse passes the Derby and runs in the Preakness, it usually means that they’re not in the upper echelon of their crop (Red Bullet is the exception). Therefore, it stands to reason that the majority of Preakness top-three finishers will be Derby runners.

However, since at least one new shooter does well in the Preakness, what will that horse look like? Here’s a profile of all the new shooters who hit the board:

Year Horse Preakness Finish Last Race Odds
2015 Tale of Verve 2nd 1st, maiden 28/1
2015 Divining Rod 3rd 1st, Lexington 12/1
2014 Social Inclusion 3rd 3rd, Wood Memorial 5/1
2011 Astrology 3rd 3rd, Jerome 15/1
2010 First Dude 2nd 2nd, Blue Grass 23/1
2009 Rachel Alexandra 1st 1st, Kentucky Oaks 9/5
2008 Macho Again 2nd 1st, Derby Trial 39/1
2008 Icabad Crane 3rd 1st, Federico Tesio 22/1
2006 Bernardini 1st 1st, Withers 12/1
2006 Hemingway’s Key 3rd 5th, Lexington 29/1
2005 Scrappy T 2nd 1st, Withers 13/1
2004 Rock Hard Ten 2nd 3rd, Santa Anita Derby 6/1
2004 Eddington 3rd 3rd, Wood Memorial 13/1
2003 Midway Road 2nd 1st, allowance 20/1
2002 Magic Weisner 2nd 2nd, Federico Tesio 45/1
2000 Red Bullet 1st 2nd, Wood Memorial 6/1
1999 Badge 3rd 3rd, Wood Memorial 58/1
1998 Classic Cat 3rd 1st, Lexington 12/1


There’s a few trends here:

  • 14 out of the 20 went off at more than 10/1 odds.
  • 9 of them won their last race. Only Hemingway’s Key recovered from an off-the-board finish last out to hit the board in the Preakness.
  • Only two horses came out of Maryland’s signature Preakness prep race, the Federico Tesio Stakes. Tesio winners in general are 0-for-12 in the last 20 years, with the last winner of both the Tesio and the Preakness being Deputed Testamony in 1983.
  • The Wood Memorial is the most successful source of new shooters, with four horses exiting that race and doing well in the Preakness. However, there are no Wood horses coming into this year’s Preakness.

Bottom line is: somebody among the “new shooters” will probably do well. They just won’t win.

Among Derby horses and favorites, as you saw, Derby horses do exceedingly well in the Derby. Specifically, Derby winners do well. In the past 19 runnings, the Derby winner has won the Preakness 10 times. Five other times, they’ve finished in the top three. For those keeping track at home, that’s 79% of Derby winners finishing in the Preakness top three. Leave Nyquist off your Preakness trifecta ticket at your own risk.

In most cases, the Derby winner is also the favorite (the exceptions in the last 20 years are I’ll Have Another, Mine That Bird, Giacomo, Monarchos, Charismatic, Victory Gallop, and Silver Charm). That’s pretty interesting: in the past ten years, the Derby winner has gone off favored eight times. It’s a rather recent trend, however; there was a stretch where the Derby winner was not the favorite four out of five years. Anyway, the favorite has come in the top three sixteen times. Orb in 2013, Super Saver in 2010, Barbaro in 2006*, and Cavonnier in 1996 missed the board.

*- of course, Barbaro not coming in the top three that year were due to circumstances beyond his control. For what it’s worth, the second favorite was Brother Derek, who finished fourth at 3/1.

Even if the favorite doesn’t win, don’t expect a high-priced horse to win. Seventeen of the last twenty Preakness winners went off at less than 10/1, with Oxbow in 2013, Shackleford in 2011, and Bernardini in 2006 being the exceptions. Moral of the story: don’t try too hard to find a longshot in the Preakness, because you probably won’t find a winning one.

Another big question is: what’s the running style of the average Preakness winner? Look no further than this handy chart!

2015 American Pharoah On lead
2014 California Chrome Rated off pace
2013 Oxbow On lead
2012 I’ll Have Another Rated off pace
2011 Shackleford Rated off pace
2010 Lookin at Lucky Rated off pace
2009 Rachel Alexandra On lead
2008 Big Brown Rated off pace
2007 Curlin Mid-pack
2006 Bernardini Rated off pace
2005 Afleet Alex Mid-pack
2004 Smarty Jones Rated off pace
2003 Funny Cide Rated off pace
2002 War Emblem On lead
2001 Point Given Closer
2000 Red Bullet Closer
1999 Charismatic Mid-pack
1998 Real Quiet Mid-pack
1997 Silver Charm Rated off pace
1996 Louis Quatorze On lead


As you can see, in the past 20 years, five horses have gone gate-to-wire to win the Preakness. Almost all the winners have been close to the pace; Point Given in 2001 is the last winner to come from 10 lengths or more out of it.

The moral of the story is: the Preakness winner will probably be coming out of the Kentucky Derby, will probably be one of the favorites, and will probably be on or near the pace. Who exactly that will be remains to be seen.

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