Thursday morning of Preakness Week typically brings many things to Pimlico Race Course: Sunrise tours of the stable area, Clydesdales, the Archbishop of Baltimore, banter among rivals at the Alibi Breakfast, selfies with the Woodlawn Vase and finishing touches for the Thoroughbreds entered in Saturday’s Grade 1 stakes.
The 2020 version – in October instead of May, the third step in the series instead of the second – skipped the stuff at the beginning of that paragraph, but delivered on the last bit as the 11 Preakness starters went to the track Thursday. The filly Swiss Skydiver was out early, before sunrise but during Venus (at least we think it was Venus) rise. Barbara Livingston nailed a photo. Nobody else did. Steve Asmussen’s runners Excession, Pneumatic and Max Player were out there somewhere in the darkness. Thousand Words, trainer Bob Baffert’s “insurance card,” galloped a little after 7 – bounding off with a few feel-good mini-bucks.
Jesus’ Team trained next, and sparked a pronunciation challenge. Jee-zus or Hay-zeus? Pick one, he put in his work and looks to improve off a third in the Jim Dandy.
Just before the 8 o’clock harrowing break, rider Tom Garner and trainer Fenneka Bentley trained two Arabians for Saturday’s Grade 1 UAE President’s Cup. “The strongest horse Tom’s ridden in awhile,” said Bentley, who has three in the $100,000 race following the Preakness.
At 8:25, the Pimlico stakes barn looked like a metro stop as Kentucky Derby winner and 9-5 morning-line favorite Authentic, Mr. Big News, Liveyourbeastlife and Art Collector circled the shedrow. Mr. Big News caught the first train, walking to the track ahead of trainer Bret Calhoun. He’d touted his horse as an up-and-comer way back in April and the Giant’s Causeway colt backed it up with a third in the Derby at 46-1. Calhoun said the delayed Triple Crown schedule helped his horse (34-1 or higher in his last four starts) get there.
“In a normal year, he probably doesn’t show up in the Triple Crown schedule,” said Calhoun. “He came late. I think if I would have been able to run him in the Louisiana Derby (in March), he got stuck on the AE, he would have showed up big that day. In turn, it probably wouldn’t have worked out as good as it has now. He was immature. He might have had too many races in him and not been able to develop like he has now. I think it was a blessing in disguise. I was frustrated after the Louisiana Derby, I worked him the day after and he worked fantastic. I was sick that I didn’t take my other horse (Mailman Money) out and let him run. But I think that at the end of the day it helped him. Everything worked out for the best.”
Thursday he finished up his gallop next to jockey Katie Davis aboard another Arabian, this one a flashy gray with the stride of a dressage horse (Preakness Week makes for strange partners sometimes).
Calhoun watched the Derby, got excited when his horse threatened Authentic and Tiz The Law at the top of the stretch but ultimately settled for the show spot. Can the son of 12-1 shot find a few lengths at Pimlico?
“We’re going to have to,” Calhoun said. “(Authentic) looks really good. I’ve been watching him train for a while. Obviously, he looked great Derby Day, and he’s looked great every day since. We’ve got to be better and either he’s got to take more pressure, which I don’t believe is going to happen – I think he’s too fast for the rest of them – or he doesn’t bring his A game. He looks pretty solid in there to me.”
Authentic galloped next, striding right away and getting to work. Ornery the first time around, he looked at the gap a little and took some correcting before putting in another lap. This one was straighter, faster, better.
“You better be ready,” trainer Bob Baffert told Calhoun with a laugh as the trainers watched the action from the gap near the quarter pole.
Calhoun knows, everybody does.
Liveyourbeastlife, the first Triple Crown starter for trainer Jorge Abreu, galloped with his ears pricked – relaxed, chilled, hoping (like Mr. Big News) for some pace up front and another step forward from a second in Saratoga’s Jim Dandy Sept. 5.
“Where’s Art Collector?” someone asked.
Over there. Standing in. Still. To the left, across the gap, stood the race’s 5-2 second choice. Marylander Annie Finney, called to duty by Kentucky trainer Tommy Drury for Preakness Week, watched the action for a good 10 minutes before setting off. Art Collector, winner of his last four but a scratch in the Derby because of a minor foot injury, isn’t a big horse but he gallops like one – long stride, smooth, fast, ready. One observer mentioned booking a mare to the bay colt, based on that stride alone.
Finney, who rode 2003 Horse of the Year Mineshaft for Neil Howard and 2013 Belmont Stakes winner Palace Malice for Todd Pletcher – and plenty of others – has enjoyed her short association with Bruce Lunsford’s Bernardini colt.
“He seems like a really smart horse, he’s so cool, I love him,” she said. “I would like to keep him. I really hope he runs well. He didn’t get his chance (in the Derby) and that was such a shame but hopefully it’ll work out. He knows the drill. He’s very easy to ride and pretty much does everything on his own. I just sit there.”
Recommended to Drury by Howard, Finney isn’t sure she’s ever met Art Collector’s trainer but did her homework before the horse arrived this week.
“Tommy had said he could take a little bit of a hold sometimes, which whenever anyone says that it usually means your arms are going to be falling off, so I was really relieved when I saw video of him galloping at the farm,” Finney said. “He looked pretty chill. When they’re good horses like that they kind of know and you can feel that they know and you just kind of stay out of their way.”
She’ll be back aboard Friday morning, or as often as Drury needs her (see Maryland Jockey Club photo).
New York-bred Ny Traffic closed the training schedule for trainer Saffie Joseph Jr., who was holding court for writers and television crews (the few with backstretch credentials anyway) outside the barn as the morning wound down. There were still no Clydesdales in sight, the bishop had other things to do and who knows where the Woodlawn Vase is, but it felt normal – almost.
See you Friday.