McPeek ‘Going to Enjoy’ Mystik Dan’s Preakness Run Saturday

May 16th, 2024

McPeek, Lukas Entertain at Thursday’s Alibi Breakfast
Baffert: Imagination ‘Will Be Tough’ in $2 Million Preakness
Cox Seeks Career Triple Crown Sweep in 149th Preakness

BALTIMORE – Trainer Kenny McPeek, separated from his Kentucky Derby (G1) winner for all of four days, liked what he saw Thursday morning in Mystik Dan, who has inherited the mantle of favorite for Saturday’s 149th Preakness Stakes (G1) upon Wednesday’s scratch of Muth.

“He’s doing great,” said McPeek, who arrived in Baltimore Wednesday afternoon from Louisville, KY. “He’s a pretty easy-peasy colt. He eats well. He’s a real quiet horse. I’ve used the terminology that he’s an old soul. Nothing much fazes him at all, which makes our job really easy.”

After jogging part way around the Pimlico track, Mystik Dan, who is the 8-5 favorite on the revised morning-line for the Middle Jewel of the Triple Crown, became acquainted with the saddling paddock before embarking on a light gallop under former jockey Robby Albarado.

“We want a quiet day, we don’t want anything complicated,” McPeek said of Preakness Day, when jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. will ride Mystik Dan in the 1 3/16-mile Preakness. “We don’t want any hoopla. We want to get him over there and give him his best chance. It’s still not an easy race. There are no guarantees. It’s a very humbling sport. Right now, we’ve got everything in line, and we’re leaving it up to Brian.”

McPeek demurred when asked how the defection of Muth, who defeated Mystik Dan in the Arkansas Derby (G1), changed the Preakness strategically.

“I don’t over-coach Brian Hernandez; I let him do his thing,” he said. “It’s about feel out there. It’s not about what I tell him to do. I think that’s why we do well (together). He usually makes the right decision. He knows the horse. He’s a great rider. He’s proven that.”

Asked about the pressure, McPeek said, “Pressure is self-inflicted. I’m going to enjoy this. There’s nothing I can do other than getting him to the track and back, making sure he’s doing right. Brian, same thing. I don’t see him putting any unnecessary pressure on himself. He’s going to go out there and ride his race.”

Given that McPeek was not inclined to run in the Preakness the day after the Derby, not a lot has been said about Mystik Dan being the only horse eligible to win the Triple Crown this year. The historic series concludes in the June 8 Belmont Stakes (G1) at Saratoga this year because of construction at Belmont Park.

But the Triple Crown definitely is on McPeek’s radar. The trainer has an affinity for creating lists and was asked if he’d made one for Saturday.

“Oh, yeah,” he said with a laugh.

What’s on it?

“Win the Preakness,” McPeek promptly responded. “I put win the Belmont, too, on there.”

That also has crossed Hernandez’s mind.

“After winning the Derby, a couple of days later you’re like, ‘Man, if we can go up there and win the Preakness… then you start looking at Triple Crown options,” Hernandez said by phone from Louisville. “If you’re fortunate enough to win the Preakness, then you have to start thinking, ‘Hey, Mystik Dan, he could be champion 3-year-old,’ things like that. You start worrying about year-end honors for the horse.

“Of course, you want to go in there with a big chance of winning the Preakness. It’s the second leg of the Triple Crown, such a classic race. It’s another deal where everyone knows who the Preakness winner is,” he added.

Asked what traits Mystik Dan possesses that could assist a run through the Derby, Preakness and possibly the Belmont (which this year will be held at 1 ¼ miles instead of 1 ½ miles), Hernandez said: “He’s so versatile and so easy to be around. He’s not one of these horses where he’s going to be hard on himself and overdo things. He just wants to go out there and please everybody. He does what’s asked from him. He’s not overdoing things, not trying to train through the bridle and everything else. That should help him with a quick turnaround, like we’re having to do.”

Mystik Dan also does not have an issue with a wet track, which could happen Saturday, having won Oaklawn Park’s Southwest Stakes (G3) by eight lengths in the slop.

“You can’t really tell the difference,” Hernandez said of Mystik Dan’s performance on a fast or wet track. “He’s one of those horses where he’s got two, three different moves, and he’s got a quick turn of foot. 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. So if it rains, it rains. If it doesn’t, we’re ready to go either way.”

Hernandez will also ride at Pimlico Friday, being named on Port Townsend in the $100,000 The Very One Stakes and Pyrenees in the $250,000 Pimlico Special (G3) for trainer Cherie DeVaux.

McPeek, Lukas Entertain at Thursday’s Alibi Breakfast
Trainer Kenny McPeek, who saddled Thorpedo Anna for a victory in the Kentucky Oaks (G1) and Mystik Dan for an upset score in the Kentucky Derby (G1) last weekend at Churchill Downs, paid tribute to Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas during Friday’s Alibi Breakfast at Pimlico Race Course, delivered with a little jab at the 88-year-old trainer.
“I finally did something Wayne Lukas hasn’t done – the Oaks-Derby Double. He’s won four Derbys, six Preakness and four Belmonts, do you want to tell us?” McPeek said while looking in the direction of Lukas, who will seek his seventh Preakness victory with Just Steel and Seize the Grey.

When it came time for him to take the podium, Lukas was quick to give it back to McPeek after thanking his rival trainer for bringing his Derby winner to the Middle Jewel of the Triple Crown. megafafa

“I went to his office the other day. He was so proud. He had just finished a jigsaw puzzle,” Lukas said. “He said, ‘Wayne look at this! I finished this puzzle in two months, and it says right on the box – 2 to 4 years!’”

Earlier in the Alibi Breakfast, Baltimore radio personality Scott Wykoff and TV analyst Samantha Perry introduced the 2024 award winners: Hillwood Stable’s Ellen Charles (Special Award of Merit), Daily Racing Form’s Dan Illman (Old Hilltop Award), WBAL -Radio, producers Scott Wykoff and Pete Medhurst (David F. Woods Memorial Award).

IMAGINATION – With the untimely scratch of Muth from the 149th running of the $2 million Preakness Stakes (G1), it could be left up to his stablemate, Imagination, to be the pacesetter in the Middle Jewel of the Triple Crown.
Or it might not.

“I have no idea,” Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert said from Southern California. “If I did, I would not tell you. I do think he will be tough.”

The son of Into Mischief, a $1.05 million purchase by SF Racing and partners, galloped for the first time at Pimlico Race Course Thursday morning with exercise rider Humberto Gomez on board. Imagination went 1 3/8 miles at 8:30 a.m.

“It rained (Wednesday night) and they had the track floated this morning,” assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes said. “We thought it would be better to wait until they scratched it before bringing him out. He is a nice horse.”

Imagination, who will be ridden by Frankie Dettori in the Preakness, has two wins and four seconds in six career starts. Three of his losses – including his latest race, the Santa Anita Derby (G1) – have come by a neck.

Muth and Imagination figured to give Baffert a solid chance to add to his record number of Preakness victories. He has eight, the latest coming a year ago when National Treasure won it.

“I was coming here hoping to run 1-2,” Barnes said. “Now he has to run first.”

Barnes said that Muth, who was declared out of the Preakness on Wednesday after spiking a temperature of 103, was doing better on Thursday.

“He is good,” said Barnes, who added that Muth is eating. “The temperature has come down and the bloodwork is OK. This is something that doesn’t go away overnight. It will take three or four days.”

Barnes said that Imagination will go to the track Friday morning around 7:30.

CATCHING FREEDOM — While Kenny McPeek completed his career Triple Crown sweep when Mystik Dan won the Kentucky Derby (G1), his fellow Kentucky-based trainer Brad Cox hopes he can do the same with Louisiana Derby (G2) victor Catching Freedom in Saturday’s 149th Preakness Stakes (G1).

Catching Freedom finished fourth in the Derby, 1 ¾ lengths behind the three-horse photo headed by Mystik Dan.

Cox, who won his first of 48 Grade 1 stakes in 2018, earned what appeared to be his first Triple Crown victory when Godolphin’s 2-year-old champion Essential Quality won the 2021 Belmont Stakes (G1) after finishing fourth in the Derby. That was Cox’s first appearance in the Derby, and he also had Juddmonte Farms’ Mandaloun coming in a half-length behind Medina Spirit for second place. Or so everyone thought.

However, this past Feb. 26, Mandaloun was declared the official winner of the 147th Kentucky Derby after the disqualification of Medina Spirit for a medication infraction, with almost three years of court battles ensuing. That became Cox’s first Triple Crown winner, even if he never experienced the joy of watching his horse hit the wire first.

Cox and his son/assistant trainer Blake, who is at Pimlico with Catching Freedom, hope to experience that sheer joy first hand in the Preakness. The Albaugh Family Stables’ colt figures to be no worse than third choice in the field of eight 3-year-olds, with Mystik Dan (the likely favorite after the scratch of Arkansas Derby (G1) winner Muth. The second choice in betting likely goes to either Catching Freedom or Muth’s Bob Baffert-trained stablemate Imagination.)

“The Preakness is a very prestigious race;” Brad Cox said by phone from Kentucky. “Just like the Derby and the Belmont and all the Breeders’ Cup races. You not only want to win them once, you want to win them multiple times. But you’ve got to win the first one. It would mean a tremendous amount to win the Preakness. Baltimore, the whole atmosphere there all week is nice. It’s a cool weekend of racing to be a part of.”

And, the trainer said, “I like our spot Saturday.”

Catching Freedom had another strong day training on a sun-kissed morning after two days of sloppy tracks.

“He galloped great… picked up his gallop down the lane the second round and pulled up around the three-quarter pole, and looked great,” Blake Cox said. “High energy, still on the bridle… Looking at the race now, it was a great decision to come here. We’re excited.”

Regarding how Muth’s defection with a fever impacts the late-running Catching Freedom, Blake Cox said: “Muth was going to be right there, if not on the lead. It changes the pace scenario, and we’re going to need a set-up to come running. Hopefully some other people send (their horses) out of there, and we can get a set-up.”

He said he didn’t think a wet track Saturday would negatively impact Catching Freedom.

“I would say no, because the last two days, he trained very well,” Blake Cox said. “I think he’ll like it.”

Catching Freedom also finished third on a very sloppy track in New Orleans’ Risen Star Stakes (G2), a race won by eventual Kentucky Derby runner-up Sierra Leone, who is not in the Preakness.

“He still ran well behind probably the best 3-year-old in the country that day,” Blake Cox said.

Catching Freedom will be ridden again by Flavien Prat.

TUSCAN GOLD –It appears that Tuscan Gold has his game face on as the 149th running of the $2 million Preakness Stakes (G1) gets closer and closer.

The son of Medaglia d’Oro galloped a mile and a quarter over the Pimlico Race Course track on a picture-perfect Thursday morning with exercise rider Janiel Rosado on board.
“He is getting serious now,” Jose Hernandez, an assistant to trainer Chad Brown, said. “He wanted to do more.”
Tuscan Gold, owned by William H. Lawrence, Walmac Farm and Stonestreet Stables LLC, is the most lightly raced 3-year-old in the eight-horse Preakness field.
He has had just three starts, which, by the way, were the same number of starts that Brown’s two prior Preakness winners (Cloud Computing in 2017 and Early Voting in 2022) had.
Tuscan Gold broke his maiden in his second start and Brown thought enough of him to run in the $1 million Louisiana Derby (G2) at Fair Grounds on March 23. He finished third after a less-than-ideal trip.

“He made a move a little early,” Hernandez said. “I think he is a lot more focused now. He is getting more into the game. I think this was the right move coming to this race. I think he is going to handle it big time.”

Brown chose to run in the Preakness over the $200,000 Peter Pan (G3) at Aqueduct last weekend. Hernandez said that plans call for Tuscan Gold to gallop Friday morning at 8:30.
Tyler Gaffalione, who has ridden Tuscan Gold in his last two starts, will ride him in the Preakness.

JUST STEEL/SIEZE THE GREY – At 88, Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas’ stable is rolling. Again.

With new clients investing in bloodstock at sales, Lukas has returned to the highest level of racing, a stratum he dominated at for decades. He is making his 32nd appearance in the Preakness Stakes (G1) Saturday with a pair of colts, Just Steel and Seize the Grey. They will be his 47th and 48th starters in the 1 3/16-mile-race.

A lack of depth and quality hit the Lukas stable hard in the second half of the last decade. In 2019, he saddled a total of 15 winners. In 2020, he had 19 wins and $1,006,591 in earnings. So far this year, Lukas has had 16 wins from 113 starters and earnings of $2,649,425. Most of that success came at Oaklawn Park where he finished fifth in the trainer standings.

Lukas brought seven runners to compete in the stakes at Pimlico this weekend and is very enthusiastic about his Preakness horses as he seeks his seventh victory.

There was a significant turnaround in the Lukas stable in 2022 when his earnings climbed dramatically to $4.1 million. He had a strong Saratoga meet that summer and two of his new owners, John Bellinger and Brian Coelho of BC Stables, were active at the Fasig-Tipton sale. They spent $2.2 million, and the next month spent $3,450,000 at Keeneland. Just Steel came out of the Keeneland sale.

Bellinger and Coelho had known Lukas for years and decided to use the octogenarian when they decided to get into the racing business.

“They didn’t want to grow up in the business with somebody that was growing with them,” Lukas said.

With MyRacehorse’s Seize the Grey and Just Steel, co-owned by BC Stables LLC and Henry Schmueckle, Lukas is back on familiar ground at Pimlico. He is competing in the Triple Crown series and is as confident as ever.

“It’s a game of experience,” he said. “You still have to have that experience of looking at these horses and reading them and knowing what to do. I feel like I haven’t lost anything. I might be a little slower on the pony, but I’m still on that horse. I’m still doing the same thing, but I do it better than I used to.”

UNCLE HEAVY – Since his colt, Uncle Heavy, is 2-for-2 on off tracks, trainer Butch Reid Jr. is just fine with the forecast for rain Saturday for the 149th Preakness Stakes (G1).

Michael Milam and LC Racing LLC’s colt jogged and then galloped over the sloppy track at Pimlico Race Course Thursday morning and Reid liked what he saw.
“I’m hoping for a track similar to this one on Saturday because he loved it, really relished it,” he said. “Had a good, aggressive gallop and was getting over it really well.”

However, the prospect of a bit more moisture in the track made Reid smile.

“Well, that’s what I’m hoping for, a little wet-fast,” Reid said. “He really likes that.”
Uncle Heavy will try to become the first Pennsylvania-bred to win the historic Preakness since Smarty Jones in 2004. He showed that he was Triple Crown series-capable with his victory in the Withers (G3) over a muddy, sealed track at Aqueduct Racetrack on Feb. 3. Some six weeks before the Withers, he won the Wait For It Stakes at Parx over a sealed track rated as “good.”

Reid, 67, said he does not know why Uncle Heavy has done well when the going is wet.
“He’s a big horse and sometimes they don’t, but he’s a very sure-footed horse, has a perfect way of going,” Reid said. “Big guys like him sometimes don’t like a breaking-away racetrack where they don’t feel it underneath them. I think most of them prefer it where they could feel the track underneath them.”

The Uncle Heavy story is a family affair. Reid’s older brother, Mark, a retired trainer and bloodstock agent, owns the mare with this wife, Barbara, who is the breeder. The colt’s name is Mark Reid’s family nickname. Neither of the Reid brothers has had a Triple Crown series runner, and now they are in it together.

“It’s really been great,” Butch Reid said. “We’ve all been kind of in the business but in separate aspects of it, so for this to come together like this is really something special.”

Five-time Eclipse Award winner Irad Ortiz Jr. has picked up the mount on Uncle Heavy. They will leave from Post 2.

MUGATU – Average Joe Racing Stables LLC and Dan Wells’ Mugatu visited the Pimlico Race Course track for the first time at 7:30 Thursday morning, galloping 1 ½ miles under former jockey Robby Albarado, who was aboard Kentucky Derby (G1) winner Mystik Dan for a morning gallop an hour later.

“Robby said he felt great. He looked great,” trainer Jeff Engler said. “The track was still a little bit sloppy, and Robby said he handled it perfectly. He said if the track is sloppy on Saturday, you won’t have a problem.”

Mugatu enters Saturday’s Preakness Stakes (G1) coming off a fifth-place finish in the April 6 Blue Grass (G1) at Keeneland, where he rallied from 10th.

“I’m pretty high on him, to be honest,” Engler said. “This horse just keeps getting better. He’s fresh. Coming off that race in the Blue Grass, if he improves off that race, he’ll be right there.”

Joe Bravo, who was aboard Mugatu’s maiden victory at Gulfstream in November the only time he has ridden the son of Blofeld, has the call for the Preakness.

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