By Tom Jicha

One of the weakest fields in memory will chase the second jewel of the Triple Crown. The first four finishers under the wire in Louisville are AWOL. The likely favorite, Improbable, has not won a race as a 3YO, War of Will, the colt at the center of the Derby debacle, has finished ninth and seventh (moved up to sixth) in his two most recent races. Non-Derby horses and Maryland hotshots have a weak record in the Preakness but the lesser quality of the field could open the way for streaking Alwaysmining to score a minor upset.

Controversy doesn’t have to be a bad thing. The fallout from the Kentucky Derby might be the best thing Saturday’s Preakness has going for it.

Ranked on star power, this is the least lustrous second jewel of the Triple Crown in memory. The only reason for many to watch is to see how War of Will rebounds from his Derby debacle. Was he really denied his chance at glory by Maximum Security or was the alleged foul much ado about very little.

Trainer Mark Casse said ruefully that because of the Derby brouhaha, War of Will has gotten as much or more attention going into the Preakness as American Pharoah and Justify did en route to their Triple Crowns.

It’s shameful only four horses from this spring’s Kentucky Derby are coming back. The first four horses under the wire in Louisville are no-shows. Country House and Maximum Security have legitimate ailment excuses. Others just don’t want to play in one of the few races that draws national attention to the sport. Way to support the game, guys.

Neither of the Preakness’ “big horses” is coming in on a high. Improbable, the last flash Derby favorite, is winless in three starts as a 3-year-old. The Derby was the weakest performance of his career, the first time in six career starts he finished out of the exacta. Still, he is very likely to be favored again.

Mike Smith, who climbs aboard for the first time, feels this status is merited. “I think we haven’t seen his best race yet. I’ve seen him from afar…and from behind,” Smith said with a laugh. “This horse has a lot of talent. If I can get him happy, he’s going to run big.”

Money Mike is confident he’ll be able to do that. Not having first-hand knowledge of a horse has often proven beneficial in their first collaboration, he said. “I have a knack for that.”

Improbable’s main challenger, War of Will, has finished ninth and seventh (put up to sixth) in his most recent starts. His trainer, Mark Casse, said those races are throw-outs. “I think he’s a great horse. Through all the adversity, he’s continued to show his class.”

Casse said if Tyler Gaffalione had gotten a clean trip, “You would be talking to me as the trainer of the Kentucky Derby winner. Not a whole lot of things went right and he still got beat about four lengths.”

The stranger danger is local hero Alwaysmining, who in some ways resembles Maximum Security. He didn’t start for a cheap claiming price, but once he moved to Kelly Rubley’s barn and she figured him out, he has been unbeatable, winning by ridiculous margins during a six-race streak.

There’s a local hotshot in the Preakness every year and they almost always finish hot and dirty against competition classier than what they have been bullying at Laurel and Pimlico. But this isn’t a typically loaded Preakness. If the Marylanders don’t bet Alwaysmining down below 6-1, he’s a value play.

Stars won’t be out

The entire Preakness weekend has devolved into racing’s equivalent of college basketball’s National Invitation Tournament, highly competitive second tier events.

The racing office knocked itself out to assemble big fields for the many stakes Friday and Saturday. Alas, there isn’t much star power. Not a single horse in the top 10 of the NTRA’s latest weekly poll of non-Triple Crown contenders will be in action in Baltimore this weekend.

This is especially noticeable in the most prominent supporting features, the Black-Eyed Susan and the Pimlico Special. The latter has been extended to a mile-and-a-quarter, a refreshing change from the trend to shorten stakes to no more than a mile-and-an-eighth. Let’s hope other tracks notice it has drawn a limit field of 14.

To be honest, half or more of the 14 are glorified allowance horses taking a shot.

Todd Pletcher has a strong entry—everything being relative—Rally Cry and You’re To Blame. You’re To Blame is a distance specialist. Ten furlongs might be too short for him. Last season, he won the mile-and-a-half Greenwood Cup at Parx and was second at a mile-and-five-eighths Temperence Hill at Belmont. Lightly raced Rally Cry hasn’t won since the 2017 ungraded Alydar at Saratoga.

Tenfold, third in last year’s Preakness, is sure to take a lot of action. He always does but he has been burning a lot of money. He has been out of the money as the favorite in both 2019 starts. Still anything close to his best race puts him right there with this bunch. But I’d rather bet against him than on him.

If you’re making vertical exotics, you could do worse than include Unbridled Juan. He rarely wins but he usually gets somewhere on the board. He’s the house horse, owned by Frank Stronach, so you know his trainer Jose Corrales will have him ready for a peak effort.

The Black-Eyed Susan pulled an original field of nine, which was quickly scratched down to eight when Sweet Diane was withdrawn. Pletcher has the filly to beat, Always Shopping. She got good at the tail end of the Aqueduct winter meeting, winning a couple of stakes, the Busanda and Gazelle. She took the Busanda as a zero-for-three maiden, an indication of the quality of competition.

The morning line is curious. Point of Honor and Cookie Dough are both rated stronger than the Pletcher filly, who's 4-1. Point of Honor's main claim to fame is scoring in a minor Tampa Bay Stakes. Most recently she was a non-distinguished fourth in the Gulfstream Oaks. She's 5-2, just ahead of 3-1 Cookie Dough, who finished ahead of her at Gulfstream. Cookie Dough lays it on the line every time and Stanley Gold is a terrific trainer. However, her only wins have been in the restricted Florida Sire Stakes series.

I’ll be taking a shot with Brill, a road warrior, who has been facing tougher for Jerry Hollendorfer. Brill comes in off a third in Oaklawn’s Fantasy. Either of the two who finished in front of her, Lady Apple and Motion Emotion, would be solid favorites in this spot.

A potential bold move

There’s a simple explanation for the dearth of top tier horses on such a big weekend--the loaded cards on Oaks and Derby Day at Churchill. The reluctance of contemporary trainers to come back in two weeks in the Preakness is also being felt in the undercards. Some of those who argue the spacing between the Triple Crown races should be increased have begun using the Preakness supporting cards as another reason to do it.

The Maryland Jockey Club is helpless. The Derby is always going to be on the first Saturday in May. As long as NYRA holds its ground with the Belmont scheduled five weeks later, there is no place for the Preakness to go.

Actually, there is but it would require a really brazen move. Suppose The Stronach Group decided to run the Preakness three or four weeks after the Belmont, say around July 4. It would juggle the Triple Crown sequence, which hasn’t always been Derby-Preakness-Belmont anyway.

As a traditionalist, I would be against this move. But trainers would love it and undoubtedly support it more strongly than they do now in both the main event and supporting stakes.

Even the threat to do it could induce NYRA to play nice with the schedule.

Just thinking out loud.