Not surprisingly, Improbable is the morning line favorite. Bob Baffert’s chestnut colt broke his maiden on the first try at Santa Anita then quickly went on to victory as a 2-year-old in a $100,000 stakes race at Churchill Downs and then again in the Grade 1 Los Alamitos Futurity at Los Alamitos Race Course. He’s winless in three starts as a 3-year-old but he does have two second-place finishes in graded-stakes races — the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes and Grade 1 Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park— and a fifth-place finish (later promoted to fourth) in this year’s Kentucky Derby.
“I feel like we’re favored by default this year,” Improbable’s co-owner, Elliott Walden, told reporters after Wednesday’s post position draw. “But this horse has a good resume. He ran very well in the Derby without hitting the board.”
That resume gives Improbable the highest Prime Power rating in the field (149.8), a metric designed by Brisnet to be an all-in-one numerical representation of a horse’s abilities. The higher the number, the better the horse.
Plus, according to Mike Beuoy’s Generic Length Advantage, Improbable is 38 lengths better than an average thoroughbred in a one-mile race — the best mark among 3-year-old males in 2019 — and four lengths better than the second-best horse in this field, War of Will (34 GLA). That four-length minimum difference on the field implies Improbable should win this race 30 percent of the time.
It’s worth noting that GLA doesn’t take into account track, surface, distance, jockey, weight, rest, recency, pace, medication or any other handicapping factor aside from competition faced, but there are other reasons to like Improbable’s chances on Saturday. His owner (WinStar Farm), trainer (Baffert) and new jockey (Mike Smith) were all connected to Justify, last year’s Triple Crown winner. Smith also won the Preakness aboard post-time favorite Prairie Bayou in 1993 and has hit the board five other times in 17 lifetime starts in this event.
And it appears Improbable is getting better at conserving his energy for later in the race. His pace rating to the second call (the three-quarter mile mark in routes) has been getting slower but his pace rating from the second call to the finish has remained high (101 to 105 over the last four races, par for the Preakness is 93), putting him in prime position to pass tiring horses as the race unfolds into the stretch — a key trait for Saturday’s race that features a lot of early speed.
“I’m not thinking Triple Crown this time, but I am picking up a horse in a classic, which always is huge,” Smith told Ed McNamara of Newsday. “Going in, your mindset is not different about trying to win. We’re going in with a game plan so that I can get an A-plus race out of this horse, because I know there’s a lot in there we haven’t seen yet.”
Plus, new shooters (horses that skipped the Kentucky Derby) haven’t fared well in Pimlico’s most famous race. Since 1969, these fresh horses have won the Preakness just eight times: Bee Bee Bee (1972), Codex (1980), Aloma’s Ruler (1982), Deputed Testamony (1983), Red Bullet (2000), Bernardini (2006) and Rachel Alexandra (2009). And that’s despite new shooters making up over half the field over the past 20 years, per data from TwinSpires.
In addition, out of the three Triple Crown races, the Preakness is usually the one that holds closest to form. Since the Kentucky Derby adopted a points system to qualify for the 20-horse field in 2013, the average payout on a $2 win bet in the Preakness has returned $13.07, half the average return of the Derby winner ($26.54, including this year’s winner, Country House, at 65-1) and three-fourths what the average winner paid in the upcoming Belmont Stakes ($17.45).
“It’s still going to be an exciting race [without Maximum Security and Country House]. To me, it’s still an important race. I really enjoy going to these races,” Baffert told Ed Gray of the Boston Herald. “I like the Preakness. I really enjoy it; it’s a lot of fun. The pressure is off. We go in there and have a good time.”