Why Mystik Dan's Triple Crown chances are better than you might expect

The week started with the highly unusual situation where the winner of the Kentucky Derby was not the favorite to win the Preakness Stakes, the second leg of horse racing’s Triple Crown.

Mystik Dan won the 150th running of the race two weeks ago by a nose and that came after a near perfect trip along the rail. Can’t happen like that again, can it?

But then things started to change when the favorite, Muth, the horse who beat Mystik Dan in the Arkansas Derby, scratched out of the race with a fever. Fate or fortune?

Then the weather forecast started to indicate a wet Saturday and Mystik Dan’s most impressive win was an eight-length victory in the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn over a muddy track. A sign from the heavens?

On Thursday, Mystik Dan was officially made the favorite for the 149th running of the Preakness Stakes. He was dropped on the morning line from 5-2 to 8-5.

To hear trainer Kenny McPeek tell it, he’s just a bystander in this magical journey where he has the only horse in the world who can win this year’s Triple Crown.

“Pressure is self-inflicted,” McPeek said of the heightened expectations with the absence of Muth. “I don’t think anything about it. It’s not on my back. [Jockey] Brian [Hernandez Jr.] probably has more pressure than I do because he’s physically in the middle of all that. We’re not going to put any added pressure [on ourselves]. We’re just going to enjoy it and go for that.”

Even the possible weather advantage has McPeek non-plussed.

“I don’t worry about anything I can’t control,” McPeek said. “If it rains, it rains. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. I know my horse will handle the weather.”

Hernandez echoes McPeek’s thoughts about the condition of the track.

“He’s one of those horses where he’s got two, three different moves, and he’s got a quick turn of foot,” Hernandez told the Maryland Jockey Club press office from Louisville, where he rode at Churchill Downs this week. “That day in the Southwest, it was sloppy, and he bounced over it really, really good. But he’s gotten over the dry, fast main tracks as well. … We’re ready to go either way.”

Robby Albarado, a former jockey who is currently exercising Mystik Dan in the morning, was a bit more of a weather cheerleader.

“I’m doing a rain dance all this week,” Albarado said. “I’m not saying he has to take the racetrack with him, but we know he gets over it well.”

The current weather forecast is for a significant chance of rain for most of the day. The greatest chance is in the morning and early afternoon and by 7 p.m. ET, near post time, it’s around a 24% according to The Weather Channel.

The scratching of Muth lowered the odds on six of the eight horses. The Bob Baffert-trained Imagination is the second choice at 3-1. This will be his first race outside California and the first time legendary jockey Frankie Dettori has ridden in a Preakness. Catching Freedom, who was fourth in the Derby, is the 3-1 third choice for trainer Brad Cox. And Tuscan Gold, who has only run three races and none since March 23, is the fourth choice at 9-2 for Chad Brown.

It’s a small but competitive field.

The Preakness has suffered in recent years because most of the Kentucky Derby horses stay away. Training has changed so that horses generally don’t run back on two weeks rest. Trainers and owners feel a pressure to send the Derby winner to the Preakness, even if they don’t want to.

McPeek sees no problem in sending Magik Dan back out and the rationale started in February.

“The key on all this has been the Rebel at Oaklawn, we skipped it,” McPeek said. “My horse was coming into the Derby going 13 weeks with only one race. So, he was pretty fresh. That makes what we are doing now easier. I told [co-owner] Lance [Gasaway] before the Derby that if we win the Derby, we can come back in the Preakness without too much trouble because I don’t think he’s taxed. I think he’s in good shape.”

That prediction almost went in the trash can when Mystik Dan didn’t empty his feed bucket after the Derby and also had a restless night of sleep. There was talk of him skipping the Preakness.

“I decided I was just going to get a nice quiet week with him, gallop him Wednesday, Thursday, Friday,” McPeek said. “Saturday we let him stretch out a little bit and then we scoped him [where an endoscope is inserted down his nostril] on the end of a nice gallop. I wanted to make sure his airway was clear. And then we drew full bloodwork and chemistry. We checked all his important markers, hydration level, his white count, his enzyme levels and his inflammation. Everything was perfect.

“That gave me the confidence to say, ‘Let’s go.’ I made the decision to ship Sunday because I wanted to get into Baltimore on a non-business day. So, it was kind of a quiet Sunday and he got settled in here Sunday evening.”

Regardless of what happens Saturday, Mystik Dan will be shipped to Saratoga, where McPeek has a stable and a house. This and next year’s Belmont Stakes is being run at Saratoga because of a massive rebuilding project at the Long Island track. However, unlike the traditional 1 ½-mile Belmont Stakes, the race will be run at 1 ¼ miles so the race doesn’t start on a turn.

But all of that is a long way off. And trainers don’t usually like to talk beyond the next race. After a win, trainers fall back on “We’ll see how he comes out of this race,” or “The horse will tell us what to do.”

But McPeek didn’t hide his current vision board. The 61-year-old is known for his propensity to make lists and keep them on his phone.

Asked outside his barn on Thursday morning what was on his list. McPeek didn’t hesitate.

“Win the Preakness,” he said. “I put win the Belmont, too, on there.”

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