- The Washington Times - Friday, May 20, 2011

BALTIMORE — As trainers talk up their horses leading up to a big race, there’s always one caveat.

“You know what the best thing about our business is? Guess what — no one can figure it out,” Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito said. “That is the greatest thing about this business.”

Mystery abounds again going into Saturday’s Preakness. Animal Kingdom won the Kentucky Derby off long odds, while the favored Dialed In and chic pick Midnight Interlude were never close.

And while there may be a shortage of answers, there’s one thing permeating Pimlico Race Course for the second jewel of the Triple Crown: vindication. Just about every horse, trainer and owner with a real chance to win the Preakness is searching for it Saturday.

For Graham Motion and Animal Kingdom, it’s the question of whether he’s a one-horse wonder on dirt.

“I’m sure at some point he’s gonna have to win again on the dirt to prove it, no doubt about it. And there’s always gonna be a question mark,” Motion said. “If the Derby’s his only win there’s no doubt people are gonna expect more from him down the road.”

That question mark can be erased if Animal Kingdom pulls off another performance like he did two weeks ago at Churchill Downs.

Dialed In and Midnight Interlude have similar pressure — to prove the Derby was a fluke.

“You hope he don’t have an excuse and it’s run fair, and you just hope he gets vindicated because he is an incredible 3-year-old,” said Zito, who trains Dialed In. “I still think, not just because I have him, but I believe he’s the best 3-year-old.”

Midnight Interlude might not be the best 3-year-old in the country, but trainer Bob Baffert can’t explain why his colt finished 15th in the Derby and was never a factor. That’s what he’ll try to do in the Preakness.

“He looked like a horse that I wanna come back here and have a chance to hopefully win it and not embarrass myself like we did in the Derby,” Baffert said this week.

Mucho Macho Man, a sentimental favorite because of heart transplant survivor and trainer Kathy Ritvo, has the profile of a winner but needs to show it. He was third in Kentucky after a third-place finish in the Louisiana Derby.

“I just would really like to get that Grade 1 win and it be in the Preakness,” co-owner Dean Reeves said. “I think that solidifies the kind of horse he is and builds the resume for him and for Kathy, too.”

While the Kentucky Derby is often a crapshoot with long shots prevalent, the Preakness has shown something of a tendency to feature the race’s best horse in the winner’s circle.

And while trainer Todd Pletcher (Dance City) said there are no absolutes about the best horse winning at Pimlico, it’s different than the first race of the Triple Crown season.

“Generally the Derby sort of calls out some of the ones that maybe don’t belong, and it’s a shorter field [in the Preakness] and maybe a little more truly run race,” Pletcher said.

Twenty-three of the past 27 Preakness winners ran in the Kentucky Derby, a good sign for Animal Kingdom, Dialed In, Midnight Interlude, Mucho Macho Man and Shackleford. But for new shooters like Pletcher’s Dance City, the Preakness “kinda becomes his Derby,” the trainer said.

Along with a search for vindication, there’s no shortage of motivation, either. Ritvo can become the first female trainer to win a Triple Crown race. Astrology can become the first homebred horse of the late Jess Jackson to do the same.

“Obviously it means the most to the Derby winner,” Pletcher said.

A victory by Animal Kingdom would be another step toward stopping the Triple Crown drought at 32 years. The widely held thought is that if Motion’s horse runs the same as he did in the Derby, he’ll take that step.

But with every trainer and owner hoping and expecting for the best, a line from Astrology’s trainer, Steve Asmussen, could stand for just about every horse who will leave the starting gates just after 6:20 EST Saturday evening.

“He has the right pedigree and the right look,” Asmussen said, “And he has to win the right race.”

And everyone is hoping the Preakness is the right race for their horse.

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