Batten down the crabcakes. We've arrived in Baltimore. It's time to talk middle jewel, as in Preakness, and the storylines are focused.
Can Animal Kingdom replicate his Derby-winning effort, and if so, why did anyone else bother to show up?
Will Dialed In rake a $6.1 million payday that re-labels the Kentucky Derby as one of the most unique prep races of all-time?
Which new shooter will show up with reservations for the Preakness exacta, becoming the ninth horse in the last 10 years to skip the Derby and run first or second in Baltimore?
Figure those three things out in advance and head straight to the pay line. This is not a particularly evaluative Preakness. Jumbled in speculation, forgiveness and blind faith, those are the qualities that come to mind for me as I look at the field of 14. You either believe in many of these horses or you don't. Dissecting numbers, head-to-head match-ups and form cycles may as well be dumped into the Inner Harbor. The way horses are trained and prepared these days, especially this year, makes such evaluations sketchy at best given the 2-week turnaround from Derby to Preakness.
Here's how I see the Preakness 136 pace taking shape.
MUCHO MACHO MAN
ISN'T HE PERFECT
Not On My Tickets
ISN'T HE PERFECT: No factor in either the Wood Memorial or the Jerome, this longshot should not have any impact on the Preakness. Given his mid-pack running style, he won't disrupt the pace scenario either. There's no shame in wanting to run in the big races, but he's simply overmatched.
CONCEALED IDENTITY: As a guy who grew up going to the Maryland tracks, I'd love to see 80-year-old Eddie Gaudet win the Preakness, especially with a son of Smarty Jones. But realistically he's got a pressing running style that should see him in a chase and fade mode against this class of competition.
MIDNIGHT INTERLUDE: I was cold on Midnight Interlude going into the Derby and he showed absolutely nothing on the first Saturday in May to make you think the third will be much different. Bob Baffert is the modern day Lord Baltimore with five Preakness wins, but this would be his first head-scratcher after logical scores by Silver Charm, Real Quiet, War Emblem, Point Given and Lookin At Lucky.
KING CONGIE: Another story I'd love to see written given all that King Congie stands for and the emotional passing of Congie Devito this past winter. West Point Thoroughbreds and Terry Finley have done great things in and around the industry to promote horse racing, and they were second here with Macho Again at big odds to Big Brown in 2008. The Blue Grass alumni vindicated themselves decently with Brilliant Speed and Santiva running well enough in Louisville, so that's a feather in King Congie's cap. This is a horse who repeatedly finds trouble, and that concerns more than the surface change to dirt.
FLASHPOINT: I won't bite your finger if you point to this horse, as there are some things about him to like. He reminds me a lot of Yawanna Twist, who ran well in this race last year for Rick Dutrow. With his licensing issues at the fore, Dutrow has turned over the halter to Wesley Ward, a guy more than capable around a good horse, but rarely seen winning races of this distance. And the distance becomes the final judgment on Flashpoint's talents. Whatever crest they may reach, it's tough for me to extend them over 1-3/16 miles. He looks good visually here at Pimlico at least, but I'll look elsewhere.
ASTROLOGY: Wise move sitting out the Derby and aiming for the Preakness, but he's still had a light campaign this year with only the Sunland Derby and one-mile Jerome on his resume. The latter race was validated some when winner Adios Charlie came back to run a solid second in the Grade 2 Peter Pan on Saturday at Belmont. Astrology is bred to run all day, but hasn't displayed that kind of stamina to date. Past breathing issues reportedly are behind him, but I don't like him in this situation given the pace set-up and uncertainty that he'll pass good horses.
MUCHO MACHO MAN: What a tough evaluation this guy has become. Mucho Macho Man ran a strong third in the Kentucky Derby off of a 6-week layoff and figures to move forward, right? But considering his comparative youth as a mid-June foal and obvious visuals that he's a hulking youth who hasn't quite grown into his body yet, my concern is that he could be the horse most impacted by the short, 2-week turn-around between starts. Trainer Kathy Ritvo shipping him to New York and then on to Kentucky certainly is understandable given the size of her stable, but larger outfits with the ability to bed down at Churchill Downs between races and make just a single roadtrip to Baltimore would seem to have an edge. I wouldn't be surprised if Mucho Macho Man is just good enough to make an impact, but I'm going to let my skepticism of a possible regression keep him off of my tickets this time around. It's not an overly confident omission, either, but you have to take stands somewhere in these kinds of races.
SWAY AWAY: Despite a pedigree that suggests he'll run from Baltimore to Annapolis, there was a lack of "show-me" in that performance in his two races of significant distance in Arkansas. Given a mulligan in the Rebel when busting up his chompers on the starting gate after a long and raucous gate load to his inside, his Arkansas Derby was not all that bad. Granted, Patrick Valenzuela might have moved him too soon, and Sway Away hung in the lane after assuming the lead. The quality of the Arkansas Derby looked awfully good when Nehro ran second in Louisville and Alternation came back to win the Grade 2 Peter Pan last Saturday. I'd like to tell you I'm 50/50 on Sway Away, but it's more like 33/67. But the rider change to the game's premier money rider, Garrett Gomez, might be exactly what he needs to get the most timing out of what appears to be about a 1-1/2 or 2-furlong solid closing run. The best-timed move could get him in the top 4, though I'd be stunned if he won. I'll use him loosely on the bottom of the exotic wagers strictly out of respect for Gomez.
MR. COMMONS: Remember prior to the Kentucky Derby when we penned here, "In Graham We Trust" as the biggest factor to like Animal Kingdom? Welcome to the "In John We Trust" Preakness edition of Countdown. On paper, like Animal Kingdom pre-Derby, I find Mr. Commons to be a fringe player who might or might not have the tools necessary to factor at this class level. But just as Graham Motion would not show up at the Derby without a legitimate racehorse, the same can be said for Mr. Commons' trainer. John Shirreffs takes to traveling with about the same enthusiasm as a fat guy at a salad bar. He'd prefer to be somewhere else. So when Shirreffs saddles up and takes a roadie with Mr. Commons, that's enough for me to put him on my tickets somewhere. Admittedly, the Santa Anita Derby was a weak race this year, but I said the same thing about the Spiral following Animal Kingdom's win in that prep. Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice, revoke my wagering privileges. I'll include him.
DIALED IN: Much has been written when it comes to how quickly Dialed In finished in the Kentucky Derby. Whether he shaded Secretariat's come-home time for the final half-mile in Derby lore or not, it's fair to assume Dialed In will run much better than eighth in this rodeo. The early pace promises to be more favorable to his late-running style, and the question comes back to what we wondered before the Derby: Can he sustain a strong late move in a race of this distance? For all the talk of :46 - :47 seconds the final half-mile in Louisville, that's fine. But remember that he went the first 6 furlongs that day in nearly 1:17, so he should have had something late. If they run 1:11 for six furlongs this year like the past 2 Preakness editions, and Dialed In is running 1:14 and 15 lengths behind, can he deliver that same kind of late pursuit? My suspicion remains "no," and betting him at anything less than 8 or 10-1 to win seems like an underlay. He's certainly useful in the exotics.
SHACKLEFORD: An interesting fact about Derby speed and the seemingly "helpful" move to the shorter Preakness distance: Since Kauai King in 1966, exactly one Kentucky Derby pacesetter has come back to win the Preakness, 2002 Derby/Preakness victor War Emblem. I think Shackleford ran a sensational race in the Derby given that he was put to a drive with 3 furlongs left to run, and don't think he should be sloughed off because he had an easy early lead and still ran "only" fourth. Just like pre-Derby, the feeling remains that he's a serious contender to finish second, third, fourth, but not likely to win in at all. Given that trainer Dale Romans has had 4 straight Triple Crown races with a horse in the superfecta, that seems about right again. He doesn't look as bright on the track here as he did at Churchill, but I still respect him.
NORMAN ASBJORNSON: While he's never raced in Maryland and is a Pennsylvania-bred owned by next-door neighbors from PA, Norman Asbjornson is based in Maryland and trained by one of the circuit's real up-and-coming stars, Chris Grove. A fitness-fanatic in his training regiment, Grove will have this horse more than legged up following a series of moves over the deep and tiring Bowie training track. Sired by 1998 Preakness winner Real Quiet, Norman Asbjornson has been a different horse since stretching out around 2 turns and ran very well in 2 dates in New York. If you're looking for that 25-1 shot to juice up your trifecta, put a red circle around him in your program.
DANCE CITY: The best prep race I saw all spring was the Arkansas Derby and bet accordingly in the Kentucky Derby with only that race's 1-2 finishers, Archarcharch and Nehro, on top in any of my Derby bets. Despite the injury to Archarcharch, Nehro's runner-up finish in Louisville validated the Arkansas Derby as genuine, and that boosts the reputation of Dance City. Todd Pletcher rarely brings a horse to Baltimore for the Preakness (only 5 in his career), so aiming for this race immediately after Oaklawn seems a pretty good endorsement. He's never run a bad race and doesn't seem to have to have the early lead, which makes him prominent early and perhaps still punching late. He's very usable and could fall into a victory if the principal closers fail to respond to the 2-week turnaround from the Kentucky Derby.
ANIMAL KINGDOM: Just one win contender? That doesn't mean I think Animal Kingdom is a 2-5 shot to win the Preakness and the next coming of Secretariat. But it does mean that I analyze the race as one that becomes a complete crapshoot if/when you get outside of Animal Kingdom. Don't like him at 5-2 odds? I get your point. The old saying at the racetrack is that: "If I missed the wedding, I sure as heck ain't going to the funeral." In other words, you didn't cash at 20-1, so why risk losing at 5-2 today?
Animal Kingdom's Derby win was visually attractive, as have been many Derbies in recent years. You couldn't have looked any better than Mine That Bird did in 2009, for instance. And, sans a superfilly like Rachel Alexandra in her prime, that alleged one-hit wonder 'Birdie would have flown home in Baltimore, too. I don't see Rachel Alexandra's ilk among the fresh faces in this year's Preakness starting gate, and I have to think Animal Kingdom is every bit as good as longshot Derby winners like Mine That Bird and War Emblem, both of whom represented themselves quite fondly in their middle jewels.
The combination of Animal Kingdom's quality and lack of a concrete, attractive alternative makes him strictly the key horse on top in all of my Preakness wagers. Fear not price shoppers, the superfecta with Rachel winning two years ago still paid more than $2,900 for a buck and favored Lookin At Lucky topped a $17,000 superfecta a spring ago. I'll be searching for some of that with my exotics contenders underneath what could be a dual-classic winner come Saturday night in Animal Kingdom.
Jeremy Plonk has been an ESPN.com contributor since 2000 and is the owner of the handicapping-based Web site HorseplayerNOW.com. You can E-mail Jeremy your Top 20 contenders list, or any questions about the 3-year-old or national racing scene, at Jeremy@Horseplayernow.com.