BALTIMORE - The Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes may be more glamorous, but it's the Preakness alone that can transform three distinct races into a Triple Crown.
When Derby winners falter at Pimlico, the anticipation and curiosity that animate the three races disappears. Whatever happened at Churchill Downs two weeks earlier fades from memory.
And June's climactic Belmont is instead anticlimactic.
So, in addition to jockey Victor Espinoza, Kentucky Derby champion American Pharoah will carry that burden for the troubled sport late Saturday afternoon when he heads a bifurcated field of eight 3-year-olds in the 140th Preakness.
"Several of these horses look good," said Dallas Stewart, the trainer of Tale of Verve, the field's 30-1 long shot who will break from the No. 5 post. "But there's not much question that American Pharoah is still the horse to beat."
Aperican Pharoah trainer Bob Baffert said once-beaten Dortmund, whom he also trains, has bounced back well from the Derby.
"He's going to be tough again," predicted Baffert, who in 1997, 1998 and 2002 captured Preaknesses with Derby winners. "It's going to be interesting. What happens in the first turn will determine everything."
Baffert wasn't thrilled that American Pharoah and Dortmund drew the 1 and 2 posts, respectively, positions that could find one or both boxed on the rail by early speed.
"We didn't like the draw," Baffert said.
Meanwhile, the best hopes for Firing Line, who has the outside 8 post, could rest in the saddle. Veteran jockey Gary Stevens has won three Preaknesses and almost stole this year's lackluster Derby.
"When you get in the high-end races like these, you can't have anyone better on your horse," Firing Line trainer Simon Callaghan said of Stevens. "He had Firing Line in a perfect spot in the Derby but we just got run down in the end."
Beyond the top three, the field seems undistinguished. Danzig Moon and D. Wayne Lukas' Mr. Z finished fifth and 13th, respectively, at Churchill Downs. And none of the three newcomers competing for the $1.5 million purse — Tale of Verve, Bodhisattva and Divining Rod — look ready to compete here.
Divining Rod does figure to draw a lot of attention — though not for his racing credentials, the highlight of which was a modest victory in the Grade 3 Lexington Stakes.
That's because he's owned by Roy and Gretchen Jackson, who also had Barbaro, the 2006 Kentucky Derby winner whose leg and Triple Crown dream ended when he stumbled out of Pimlico's gate.
Curiously, 12-1 Divining Rod will be ridden by Javier Castellano, who rode the horse that ultimately won that 2006 Preakness, Bernardini.