It's also because, well, it's the Preakness Stakes and not the Kentucky Derby. Nothing else is the Derby. So, the mood was as light as the finger food. John Shirreffs, trainer of Mr. Commons, which didn't have enough earnings to make the Derby field, flew all the way from California to be rewarded with the No. 14 post position at Pimlico.
"It's better than the 20," he said with a shrug.
And so it went. The three morning-line favorites in the race - Mucho Macho Man (6-1), Dialed In (9-2) and Derby winner Animal Kingdom (2-1) - were bundled together in the 9-10-11 post positions, where at least they can keep an eye on each other.
It should be an interesting race, if only to see if Animal Kingdom can come back two weeks later to record another win and take the next step to capturing the first Triple Crown since 1978. Only five of the 19 horses that actually started the Derby are entered at Pimlico, including three of the top four finishers.
Of everyone involved in the race, however, maybe no one is more interested in the outcome of the Preakness than Robert LaPenta, owner of Dialed In. If his horse can shake off an eighth-place finish in the Derby and overcome the grind of another distance race in the space of two weeks, LaPenta stands to make a $5 million bonus. His trainer, Nick Zito, will get a $500,000 bonus. And that's before you add in the $600,000 Dialed In would earn for winning the Preakness.
In order to attract horses to Derby prep races at Gulfstream Park and to the Preakness, Frank Stronach, chairman of MI Developments, which owns both tracks, came up with this big payoff idea, and this year he might have to actually pay it.
Horses entered in either the Fountain of Youth Stakes or the Holy Bull Stakes, as well as the Florida Derby - all at Gulfstream between January and April - were eligible for the big bonus if they won two of the three, plus the Preakness. Dialed In won the Holy Bull by 11/2 lengths, then the Florida Derby by a head and can bring home the big check with a win Saturday.
The one-day record for a North American payday in racing is the $5.884 million won by Smarty Jones at the 2004 Kentucky Derby, a reward for sweeping Oaklawn Park's three-prep trip in Arkansas and then the Derby itself.
It would take a trainer with a lot of fortitude to tell an owner he doesn't think his horse should run for a $6.1 million windfall and, according to Nick Zito, the horse never caused them to have a second thought about going for it.
"To be honest, it's a fair question," Zito said on Wednesday. "All horses are different, so I don't really know, but sure the bonus is a little push."
Another push is that Dialed In is a much better horse than he showed in the Derby, when he hung last - which is not unusual - but did so on a pace that was ridiculously slow. He was last of the 19 horses after three-quarters of a mile and with too far behind to recover. Not that he didn't try.
Dialed in ran the final half-mile in a tick over 47 seconds, the fastest final half-mile in the Derby since Secretariat in 1973. With a better pace that would have kept him closer to the lead, Zito thinks the Derby favorite would have been the winner.
"It's probably the greatest eighth-place finish you'll ever see, and I didn't get anything for it," Zito said. "When you look at all the statistics and see the way he closed, any other scenario and he would have been right there. So, if we get any kind of fair pace, and the faster the better, he'll come with his run. He's that kind of horse."
As in the Derby, Shackleford should set the pace, but he'll do it this time on a track that is predicted to be fast by Saturday. The official condition for Churchill Downs and the Derby was also fast, but everyone there agrees it was not.
Dialed in came out of that race healthy and he recovered quickly. Owner LaPenta asked Zito what he thought and they looked at the horse and decided there were millions of reasons to try it. Hard to blame them.
Contact columnist Bob Ford at 215-854-5842
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