Preakness contender War of Will, with exercise rider Kim Carroll aboard, is led out of the barn Tuesday at Pimlico. He is the 4-1 second choice for Saturday’s race. (Will Newton/Associated Press)

There was a hole at the heart of the Preakness on Wednesday as contenders arrived at Pimlico Race Course to begin preparations for the 144th running of Maryland’s most important race.

Preakness week usually begins in earnest when the Kentucky Derby winner steps off his van from the airport, the undisputed king of this thoroughbred prom. Cameras click. Onlookers murmur as they glimpse the potential Triple Crown winner.

But for the first time in 23 years, the Derby champ isn’t coming. Country House remains at Churchill Downs, recovering from an illness. Maximum Security, the horse that actually crossed the finish line first, has moved on to Monmouth Park in New Jersey.

In their absence, the $1.5 million Preakness is left with a diverse field of 13 contenders but no central star.

“It’s wide open, and if we’re totally honest with ourselves it lost a lot of pizzazz by not getting the Derby winner,” said six-time Preakness-winning trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who will saddle Market King for Saturday’s race. “The Preakness is a lot more exciting if you’re bringing that horse with a chance for the second leg [of the Triple Crown], and without him in here or even the top four as it turned out, it has developed a little bit of a vanilla atmosphere.”

Improbable was listed as the 5-2 morning-line favorite at Wednesday’s post-position draw at Power Plant Live. He will start from the No. 4 spot.

The Bob Baffert-trained colt went off as the favorite in the Derby but finished fourth, unable to escape the heavy traffic generated by a 19-horse field.

Baffert didn’t attend the draw, but the seven-time Preakness winner immediately tempered expectations, noting that Improbable is the first horse he has brought to Pimlico on a three-race losing streak.

“We’re very satisfied,” said Elliott Walden, president and CEO of WinStar Farm, which co-owns Improbable with Starlight Racing and the China Horse Club, the same group that backed Triple Crown winner Justify in 2018.

“I feel like we’re favored by default this year,” Walden said when asked to compare the two experiences. “But this horse has a good résumé. He ran very well in the Derby without hitting the board.”

War of Will, the horse most directly affected by the move that got Maximum Security disqualified at the Derby, is the 4-1 second choice in the morning line.

Trainer Mark Casse is happy with the colt’s training form. “Right now, all systems are go,” he said after War of Will galloped at Pimlico on Wednesday morning. “Unless something changes in the next few days, I think we’re going to be extremely tough.”

Casse suffered bad luck, drawing the No. 1 post just as he did for the Derby. But he is not sweating the lack of star power in the field.

“For me, it’s really not going to be any different, because I still want to win,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that the Derby winner and, of course, Maximum Security aren’t here. But I understand that. It’s an extremely tough grind under normal circumstances, and then unfortunately, with the weather, the Derby was probably a little harder.”

Alwaysmining, seeking to become the first Maryland-bred Preakness winner since Deputed Testamony in 1983, is the 8-1 fourth choice in the morning line. He’ll break from the No. 7 post for trainer Kelly Rubley, who is seeking to become the first woman to win the Preakness.

Alwaysmining has won six races in a row, capped by his 11½ -length victory in the Federico Tesio Stakes at Laurel Park. When Walden was asked which fresh challengers scare him, he pointed immediately to the Maryland-bred.

“It’s like being in a dream,” said Caroline Bentley, who owns Alwaysmining with her husband, Greg. “During all the planning and bringing the horse along, we thought this was a possible endgame, but we didn’t know.”

Warrior’s Charge is one of the most intriguing fresh contenders in the field. The 12-1 choice wasn’t originally nominated for the Triple Crown series, but his owners paid $150,000 to put him in the Preakness after he dominated an excellent allowance field at Oaklawn Park on April 12. He’ll start from the No. 3 post for trainer Brad Cox.

— Baltimore Sun