Even if Animal Kingdom goes off as a heavy favorite, which he's even more likely to do now that Nehro is out, and even if he wins as a very heavy favorite, there still is going to be some good value in the 136th Preakness Stakes.
Only five Kentucky Derby runners are currently looking to run in the Preakness, leading to nine newcomers, none of whom are as well known or appreciated as the five Derby horses.
We had four horses who wanted the lead at Churchill Downs, and even Nehro was surprisingly close to an honest pace. Churchill Downs is not a speed-favoring track by any means, and it most certainly was not on that first Saturday in May, as three of the four pace-setters faded badly.
Nonetheless, Shackleford managed to stay on just as he had in the Florida Derby, eventually fading to fourth because the distance was just a bit too much.
Expect Shackleford to see an uncontested pace on Saturday. Most of the newcomers like to be near the lead, but none seem keen to actually be on the lead. Astrology and Flashpoint might push him, but if Shackleford gets a clean break, he should clear over and be about a length in front of everyone else.
That said, there are more than a half-dozen horses who want to stalk right behind Shackleford, and unless they all line up, it's going to relegate a few of them to the back half of the field.
That could benefit Astrology, and I think trainer Steven Asmussen may try to pull Astrology back into about ninth or 10th and try to avoid the cluster up front.
Dialed In, who ran eighth in the Derby coming from last, was doomed by the pace at Churchill Downs. Unfortunately, if Shackleford gets an uncontested lead and is able to set another slow pace, Dialed In won't get the run he needs again.
Furthermore, Pimlico is not known to be overly kind to deep closers. Dialed In likely won't factor in the Preakness.
Of the newcomers, I really like how the race sets up for Sway Away and King Congie.
Sway Away did not get a good trip in the Arkansas Derby, breaking quickly and giving Patrick Valenzuela more trouble rationing his speed than anyone expected. Sway Away used himself up early on, and it showed in the stretch. Although he took the lead turning for home, he faded to fourth.
He had never shown a desire to run like he had in the Arkansas Derby, and I wouldn't expect him to duplicate that performance. He'll be coming from the mid-pack, and if he can steer clear of trouble can get himself into contention.
King Congie, a sentimental favorite named for the late Congie DeVito, who died at 35 due to complications of osteogenesis imperfecta, or brittle bone disease, is absolutely a contender here despite long odds.
This horse is improving every start and although the dirt surface is a question (he struggled in his only two starts on dirt, his first two starts, while sire Badge of Silver hasn't had many distance horses who were good on dirt), I think he's ready to make the next step up.
It might be asking too much of him to win, but I think he'll get himself into contention in the stretch. He's always in the picture.
The other newcomers, excluding Astrology, just seem outclassed or outdistanced.
Flashpoint is a very good horse, but he's a sprinter. Same is likely true of Dance City. There is a chance that they'll push for the front and improve the pace, but I think they'll settle just behind Shackleford before fading in the stretch.
But Animal Kingdom is the class of this field, followed closely by Mucho Macho Man. Both caught trouble in the Kentucky Derby, and that they ran first and third is just remarkable. Expect Mucho Macho Man to get to the front from Shackleford turning for home, but he won't run away from everyone.
Animal Kingdom will catch him just before the wire and power through to a win by a neck.
In short, try to find some value with Sway Away and King Congie likely to go off at long prices. Both should do much better than their odds will suggest.
On the other hand, avoid Dialed In. Like the Derby, the pace won't be quick enough for Dialed In.
I'm saddened by the scratch of Nehro, and not just because he is in my fantasy stable. I thought this race set up very poorly for him and his presence would have created great value for other horses. He would have been second or third choice, and now after Animal Kingdom, Mucho Macho Man and Shackleford, there's no clear horse who will take a lot of betting.
Anyway, here's my projected order of finish, with Animal Kingdom set to catch Mucho Macho Man (who will get a more fortunate trip) about three or four paces from the wire.
1. Animal Kingdom, neck
2. Mucho Macho Man, 1-1/4 lengths
3. Sway Away, head
4. Shackleford, head
5. King Congie, nose
6. Dialed In, 1-1/2 lengths
7. Astrology, ¾ lengths
8. Midnight Interlude, 1 length
9. Mr. Commons, neck
10. Norman Asbjornson, neck
11. Concealed Identity, ½ length
12. Dance City, 2 lengths
13. Isn't He Perfect, 6-3/4 lengths