When the morning-line odds are released Wednesday for the 2014 Preakness Stakes, just about every contender in the field could be considered a dark horse in comparison to California Chrome.
The Kentucky Derby winner is in hot pursuit of the Triple Crown, but a quick two-week turnaround for Saturday's race at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Maryland, makes him a bit of a wild card. Some of those who didn't compete at Churchill Downs now have their own chance at glory in pursuing the second jewel while California Chorme's connections have the weight of ultimate expectations.
Here is an early look at some dark-horse candidates who figure to have strong chances to finish in the money—or even claim victory in the Preakness.
General a Rod
One of the most underrated horses in the Kentucky Derby field wound up having a lackluster performance at Churchill Downs, finishing a disappointing 11th out of 19. Even an accomplished jockey in Joel Rosario couldn't fare better, but traffic troubles at the start were part of the horse's plight.
Now with a reduced field—there are 10 projected starters at the moment, per Preakness.com—General a Rod has a great opportunity to do better. He's proven himself against strong competition without such a crowd to navigate through.
Trainer Mike Maker noted how quickly General a Rod recovered from his trip in Louisville:
Maker said General a Rod a "big, stout" colt, can handle coming back in 2 weeks. Said was so fresh after Derby, went back to track early.— Jay Privman (@DRFPrivman) May 9, 2014
A runner-up finish at the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth Stakes preceded a third-place effort in his Grade 1 debut at the Florida Derby. There are strong results on his resume to suggest that jockey Javier Castellano could have a winning trip at Pimlico.
General a Rod's bigger frame that Maker alludes to suggests his skills translate better to the Belmont Stakes, but if a new rider in Castellano breaks him at the proper time in the Preakness, prepare for a potential surprise at the finish.
Pablo Del Monte
After declining the chance to run at the Kentucky Derby, Pablo Del Monte has been gearing up with an eye toward the Preakness Stakes.
There's reason to believe trainer Wesley Ward's contender has a strong run in him. At the Grade 1 Blue Grass Stakes, he managed a finish in the money behind winner Dance With Fate and another Churchill Downs runner in Medal Count.
Dance With Fate wasn't far off the pace in the Kentucky Derby in placing sixth while Medal Count came in eighth. None of the horses that finished in front of them in Louisville have been confirmed for the Preakness, which bodes well for Pablo Del Monte.
One problem for Pablo Del Monte is that he's somewhat underachieved after winning his first two starts in 2013, running fifth in the Grade 3 Generous Stakes at the start of the year. He was beating Dance With Fate and Medal Count early on in his last start before fading down the stretch.
But Pimlico is a sprinter's course, so Pablo Del Monte is a good fit, and it makes sense that Ward didn't want him breaking from the auxiliary gate at Churchill Downs in post No. 20. As long as he gets somewhat close to the rail, Pablo Del Monte should make some serious noise.
There's a chance that Social Inclusion could be among the top three favorites when the morning line is released, but due to the small field and the prohibitive favorite status California Chrome sports, this still counts as a dark horse to an extent.
Social Inclusion hasn't necessarily proven himself as often as other likely favorites in Ride On Curlin and Bayern, but he did place third in the marquee Wood Memorial Stakes.
Owner Ron Sanchez had to scratch Social Inclusion from his last start at the Sir Bear Stakes, but he didn't seem concerned moving forward about the Preakness, per Jerry Bossert of the New York Daily News:
We had to scratch because he bruised his hoof this morning. He’s okay, he’s doing good and it’s nothing serious, and this thing will heal in two days, but we didn’t want to take a chance running today with the big race just two weeks away. We have to do the right thing by the horse.
Heeding caution in that instance should pay massive dividends, because Social Inclusion has shown the ability to compete with the best horses in the industry recently. Whether he can catch California Chrome is another story, and it is a bit concerning that he ran out of steam at the Wood Memorial.
WBAL-TV Balitmore's Chris Dachille provided his opinion on Social Inclusion in light of that:
Just watched Social Inclusion's races. All three of 'em. Horse likes to set blazing fast tempo and hold on. Couldn't do it in the Wood.— Chris Dachille (@WBALDash) May 7, 2014
Who is the biggest threat to California Chrome at the Preakness?
So a similar concern about finishing down the final stretch to Pablo Del Monte threatens to derail Social Inclusion's chances to win, but he has as much talent as anyone this side of California Chrome. That has to count for something. For what it's worth, jockey Luis Contreras won the Canadian Triple Crown in the 2011 season aboard different horses, so he is as good a candidate as any to come in and ride Social Inclusion to victory.
Betting on these dark horses really depends on how the odds shake out. In the end, it could be little more than a wishful thinking type of proposition. Since the latter two of these three seem to have issues closing out races, perhaps they will run better at Pimlico's shorter track than they would at another Triple Crown venue.
However, the 9.5 furlongs is still as long as they'll ever have run, and even California Chrome's perceived slow time in the Kentucky Derby was on a longer track—and he still ran away from the field. It's going to take an extraordinary effort to topple California Chrome, whose hype is well founded in the fact that he has yet to reach his immense potential.