Early Voting follows a familiar path and wins the Preakness Stakes

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BALTIMORE — There is a narrative awaiting oxygen in which the Preakness is just a very big horse race in the middle of May. In which it is not dependent on the bigger race that precedes it or tethered to the sometimes-bigger race that follows; and not described disparagingly in terms of which horses are not participating, rather than glowingly in terms of which ones are. In which it is not subsumed by the need for a story larger than its own. In which its crumbling physical home (not for nothing, it’s been crumbling for a while now and still standing, obstinate, as if it has heard all the disrespect and wants to prove a point) and uncertain future are made less relevant by what transpires on the racetrack in the here and now.

In which the race is the thing, all by itself.

Early Saturday evening at Pimlico Race Course, this is what transpired: A horse named Early Voting, who did not run in the Kentucky Derby, won the 147th Preakness in just the fourth race of his life and the first at a track other gritty Aqueduct, right next door to JFK Airport on the edge of Jamaica Bay. He is owned by a man who was once a little boy right here in Baltimore, just a few blocks from the track, and then went on and did big things. He is trained by a man who was once a boy in upstate New York, and snuck into Saratoga Race Course by slithering sideways through a gap in a fence, and then went on and did big things. Déjà vu: It’s the same owner and trainer who won the 2017 Preakness with a similarly fresh horse.

All of this is a nice story and a sweet story. A racing story. A human story and an equine story. And more: Winning jockey Jose Ortiz was hit with waves of emotion at the finish. “Dream come true for any rider,” he said. Is it story enough to allow the Preakness to stand on four feet, like a wobbly foal? That is another question, subject to the whims of an insistent public and the bent of recent history.

Like so many foundational sporting events in America, when the gates to Pimlico Race Course were thrown open Saturday morning, it had been three years since the Preakness was whole, in all its bacchanalian splendor and socio-economic disconnect (a big white, wealthy sporting event in a much poorer, largely black neighborhood. Read this from Baltimore poet Wallace Lane, who grew up near Pimlico). There were almost no fans at the October 2020 Preakness, and just 10,000 a year ago. On Saturday, a crowd came to Old Hilltop in smothering, 94-degree heat. Three popular bands also came to entertain. And nine solid racehorses to run. Maybe eight. Okay, seven. Fine, six.

Longshot Kentucky Derby winner Rich Strike, whose shocking victory at Churchill Downs infused racing with a desperately needed joy, most pointedly did not come. Instead, 800 miles away on Saturday morning, Rich Strike worked a nifty half-mile in just over 47 seconds, in preparation for an announced start in the Belmont Stakes on June 11. Nevertheless, afterward, trainer Eric Reed doubled down on his decision to skip the Preakness: “I just don’t think he would’ve been mentally ready to run against those horses again.” Reed has not wavered.

Rich Strike was the first healthy Derby winner to bypass the Preakness – and a chance at the Triple Crown – since Spend A Buck in 1985. There were others, including five in the 1950s alone, but that was before the Triple Crown was heavily packaged and marketed in the aftermath of the Secretariat-Seattle Slew-Affirmed 70s, and before the 37-year drought that held the sport hostage until American Pharoah’s triple in 2015. The Derby winner’s advance to Baltimore became the overriding theme of every Preakness. Including this one, accentuated by the sheer madness of Rich Strike’s win, at 80-1 odds a day after getting into the field from the also eligible list and on a five-race losing streak. Come on.

In Rich Strike’s absence, there were possibilities. There was 86-year-old D. Wayne Lukas, back at Pimlico with filly Secret Oath, 42 years after he upset Derby-winning filly Genuine Risk with Codex, the first of his 14 Triple Crown race wins. (Thirty minutes before post time, Lukas leaned against a low wall in the indoor saddling paddock and went back in time, “We saddled Codex outdoors, because they didn’t give you an option back then.”). There was Epicenter, the Derby favorite who ran bravely into the teeth of that race’s suicidal pace and hung on for second, passed – decisively — by Rich Strike in the final 100 yards. “I’ll never get over that one,” said Epicenter’s trainer, Steve Asmussen. “But you want the opportunity to try again.”

And there was Early Voting. In 2017, owner and Baltimore native Seth Klarman and trainer Chad Brown had skipped the Kentucky Derby with Cloud Computing, who, like Early Voting, had run only three races, all at Aqueduct. He won the Preakness, defeating Derby winner Always Dreaming. Early Voting had won a maiden race in December and the Withers – an early Derby prep race – in February, before getting caught at the wire by Mo Donegal in the Wood Memorial, among the series of final preps.

Brown, 43, whose hometown is Mechanicville, a one time mill town on the Hudson River 16 miles from Saratoga Springs, might have been tempted to try Early Voting in the Derby. He was not. “When you start participating in the Kentucky Derby enough,” said Brown. “You realize what a tough race it is with 20 horses. Sometimes it’s not pretty. These horses need time physically and mentally, and it can really cost you a good part of your three-year-old year if you swing and miss. This horse [Early Voting] just didn’t have the experience. It really wasn’t that hard a decision.” Also this: Brown went to the Derby with Blue Grass Stakes prep winner Zandon, second choice in the betting, and, ultimately, the third-place finisher.

Klarman, 65, who grew up on Whitney Street, near Pimlico, and then went to Cornell and Harvard Business School and became wealthy as a hedge fund manager, trusts Brown implicitly, and always carries the modest expectations of his youth. “Horses are expensive,” he said. “And I didn’t grow up with a lot of resources.”

The race plan was simple: Early Voting is fast and the Pimlico surface was favoring speed all day. “We were prepared to go to the lead,” said Brown. “And the way the track was playing all day, it would have been foolish not to plan on going to the lead.” Armagnac, and jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr. (Jose’s brother), went to the lead. Armagnac is among the Bob Baffert-trained horses transferred to his former assistant, Tim Yakteen, so that they would be eligible for Triple Crown races. Armagnac ambled through a quarter mile in 24.32 seconds and a half in 47.44, jogging fractions. Early Voting sat outside. “I was thrilled with that,” said Brown. “I relayed to Seth several times that this horse doesn’t need the lead, and he said to me at that point, ‘Well, you got your wish.’”

Jose Ortiz said, “On the back side, it just felt like we were drilling in the morning.”

For Epicenter, the 6-5 favorite, and Secret Oath, who along with Early Voting went off at 5-1 (although Secret Oath was fractionally the second choice), the Preakness experience unfolded much differently. From the gate, Epicenter slid sideways and then was squeezed back before jockey Joel Rosario drifted to the rail into eighth place. Behind such a slow pace, it was a nearly hopeless start. “You’ve got to leave the gate,” said Asmussen. “Where he was early, and they go twenty-four and one [fifth, an old racing measure], [Rosario] just left him too much to do. I was past surprised. I was disappointed.” The outcome was not a complete loss: Epicenter dug in on the rail and finished second, beaten by only 1 ¼ lengths. That narrow margin only made the poor start sting more.

Secret Oath’s style is to rally from behind, but again, that is difficult when the horses in front are running slowly and not getting tired. Here, she broke last, rallied sharply on the turn and tired, finishing fourth. Lukas said, “It’s hard to run down the leader with slow fractions like that.”

After leaving the quarter pole, Jose Ortiz twice looked behind himself. Trying to find Epicenter, trying to find Secret Oath. And? “I didn’t see nobody,” said Ortiz, whose only previous Triple Crown win came on Tapwrit in the 2017 Belmont. “I just said I’m going to bide my time now.” When Epicenter applied the slightest pressure, Early Voting responded. No surprise, said Brown. “He’s going to fight all the way to the wire,” said Brown. “He’s like a bar fighter.”

His next bar fight, however, will not be in the Belmont Stakes, the third leg of the Triple Crown. Instead, he will be pointed toward the Travers at Saratoga, and then beyond. To repeat: Derby winner in the Belmont: Probably. Preakness winner: Definitely not.

Perhaps this all sounds familiar.

Tim Layden is writer-at-large for NBC Sports. He was previously a senior writer at Sports Illustrated for 25 years.

Breeders’ Cup preps reach crescendo with Fall Stars Weekend at Keeneland

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To the horse racing world, Keeneland is Disneyland. Everything about the Keeneland experience tells you that you are in a special place where the world revolves around thoroughbred racing and breeding.

Take Blue Grass Airport in Lexington, for example. Although it’s in a relatively small marketplace, it can handle 747 jets, because wealthy owners attending the horse sales often arrive in a jumbo jet with a large entourage. When you leave the airport, you are at the intersection of Man o’War Boulevard and Versailles Road. You’re literally across the street from Gate 1 of Keeneland Race Course. Keeneland, by the way, is adjacent to the legendary Calumet Farm. Venturing out onto various side streets, you will almost stumble upon some of the most famous breeding facilities in the world. In the paddocks of these farms, the vision of mares and their foals frolicking is commonplace, looking like a scene from a movie.

Keeneland is unique, as its elegance and its racing exist side by side with its primary purpose: being a place where millions of dollars change hands on a regular basis in the sales pavilion. A countless number of legendary horses had their careers begin with their purchase in that pavilion. Unlike venues in places like New York and California, where racing is conducted virtually year-round, racing at Keeneland is held for three weeks in the spring and three weeks in the fall.

RELATED: Pleasant Passage wins Miss Grillo Stakes

The fall meeting is situated perfectly to provide final prep races for many of the horses who are pointed to a performance in the Breeders’ Cup. In a span of 3 days, from October 7th to 9th, Fall Stars Weekend will feature 9 different “Win and You’re In” races in nine different Breeders’ Cup divisions. Normally, these would be very attractive races with large purses, but when you add in the fact that the Breeders’ Cup will be held at Keeneland this year, they are even more attractive. These races offer the prospect of having a horse get a final prep at Keeneland, stay stabled in the Lexington area, and then compete in the Breeders’ Cup, all in a four-week span. For those based at Keeneland, it means they will just have a brief walk through the magnificent stable area to get to the location where they will be racing.

History of The Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland

The first Breeders’ Cup held at Keeneland was the 2015 edition, and the decision to hold the event there was controversial. Many in the racing world felt that the facility was too small, as it could not hold the large crowds of Churchill Downs and Santa Anita. Brilliant management at Keeneland led to the attendance in the main building being limited, with satellite locations on the grounds handling the overflow of a total crowd of about 40,000. It was a comfortable event to attend, helped in no small part by the fact that the star of the show was the first Triple Crown winner since 1978. American Pharoah lived up to his billing, turning in a dominant performance to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic in the final race of his career. The event returned to Keeneland in 2020, but attendance was limited due to the pandemic. Once again, however, the star of the show delivered, as Kentucky Derby winner Authentic capped off his career with a win in the Classic.

Fall Stars Weekend will be featured in two telecasts, to be shown at 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday on CNBC. Each day will feature two live races, along with highlights of some of the other “Win and You’re In” races from the weekend.

RELATED: Alpinista overcomes heavy ground to win l’Arc de Triomphe

Saturday storylines at Fall Stars Weekend

On Saturday, the Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity will be shown live. The winner will gain entrance to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. The likely favorite will be the Todd Pletcher-trained Forte, who was a dominant winner of the Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga. Pletcher has another interesting prospect in Lost Ark, who is 2-for-2 lifetime, including a runaway win in the Sapling Stakes at Monmouth in his last start. Bob Baffert will be shipping in two juveniles for a possible start in the Breeders’ Futurity. Most notable of these is Carmel Road, who captured a maiden race at Del Mar by 8 ½ lengths in his last start. The other possible Baffert starter is National Treasure, who captured a 6 ½ furlong Maiden race at Del Mar in a fast time in his only career start. Another youngster pointed to this race is Frosted Departure, from the barn of Ken McPeek. This one captured an allowance race at Churchill Downs by 9 ¼ lengths last time out.

The other live race on Saturday’s telecast is the Coolmore Turf Mile, which is a “Win and You’re In” race for the Breeders’ Cup Mile. This is always a contentious race, and some veteran campaigners who haven’t lost a step highlight this year’s field. One of those vets is the Bill Mott-trained Casa Creed, who won the Fourstardave Stakes at Saratoga in his last start. Major turf races at this time of year frequently feature Chad Brown trainees, and this race is no exception. His top two probables here are Emaraaty, who won the Bernard Baruch Handicap at Saratoga in his last start, and Masen, who won the Poker Stakes at Belmont earlier this year. Paulo Lobo will return with In Love, who won this race last year.  Finally, how about a horse who has been 1st or 2nd in 10 of 12 lifetime starts at 1 mile on turf? That’s trainer Michael McCarthy’s veteran Smooth Like Strait. This one is a wide-open affair with some worthy contenders, to be sure.

RELATED: Mo Donegal rewards team’s confidence at Belmont

Sunday storylines at Fall Stars Weekend

The first live race on Sunday’s telecast from Keeneland will be the Bourbon Stakes, for 2-year-olds on the turf. It is a “Win and You’re In” race for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. Some key trainers dominate the storylines in this race. Mark Casse has won the Bourbon Stakes in 4 of its last 7 runnings, and he will run Boppy O, the winner of the With Anticipation Stakes at Saratoga in his last start. McPeek is another 4-time winner of the Bourbon. He won last year with Tiz The Bomb, who then went on to finish 2nd in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. His 2 probables for the race are Rarified Flair (2nd in the Kentucky Downs Juvenile last out) and B Minor (won a Maiden race on dirt at Churchill Downs in his last start). It also should be noted that North America’s all-time leading trainer in wins, Steve Asmussen, will have two probable entries in Red Route One and Gigante. Red Route One won a Maiden race at Kentucky Downs in his last, while Gigante was the winner of the Kitten’s Joy Stakes at Colonial Downs in his last appearance. Finally, there is Brendan Walsh, who seems to always be a factor in Kentucky, and especially in turf races. He presents Reckoning Force, who won that $500,000 Kentucky Downs Juvenile in his last out.

The show-topper on Sunday is the venerable Juddmonte Spinster Stakes. Back in 1984, Princess Rooney posted a win in the Spinster as her final prep before winning the inaugural running of the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. Other notables who have won this race in their final prep before winning the Distaff include Bayakoa, Paseana, Inside Information and Blue Prize.

This year’s Juddmonte Spinster features a matchup between two of the top females of the past couple of years in Letruska and Malathaat. Letruska won the Spinster last year on her way to an Eclipse Award as top older female dirt horse. This year, she has posted 2 wins and a third in 4 starts. Malathaat won the 2021 Kentucky Oaks and was 3rd in the 2021 Breeders’ Cup Distaff. She enters this race off a win in the Personal Ensign Stakes at Saratoga.

This weekend presents the final North American “Win and You’re In” opportunities for the Breeders’ Cup. In New York, California, and Kentucky, 14 horses will gain entry into the “Big Dance” of Thoroughbred Racing. Most of us will be getting a case of “Breeders’ Cup Fever” this weekend, as the reality of those races on the first weekend of November draws ever so much closer.

Alpinista overcomes heavy ground to win l’Arc de Triomphe

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PARIS – Alpinista made light work of the rain and heavy ground to narrowly win the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.

Jockey Luke Morris attacked heading into the last furlong and the 5-year-old mare just held off a late charge from Belgian jockey Christophe Soumillon on Vadeni and last year’s 80-1 winner Torquator Tasso, ridden by veteran Italian jockey Frankie Dettori.

“I had a beautiful draw in stall six and after being perfectly placed, there was a second when I thought we were getting drawn into it too early,” Morris said. “But once she had taken charge, I was able to sit on her from 100 meters out.”

Morris felt the conditions would have made it harder for Alpinista to attack the way she did.

“I was concerned when all that rain came but the race went very smoothly,” he said. “I couldn’t believe how it could have in a 20-runner Arc. It was incredible.”

Alpinista was among the pre-race favorites.

“If it hadn’t been my horse, I would have thought it was going to win every inch of the way, but when it’s your own of course it’s a nightmare,” Alpinista trainer Mark Prescott said. “I didn’t think all that rain would help, but she’s never traveled better and has come on with each race.”

It was not yet clear if Alpinista will next race at the Breeders’ Cup or the Japan Cup next month.