Kentucky Derby (G1) winner Country House tops the list of candidates for the 144th Preakness Stakes (G1) – the Middle Jewel of the Triple Crown at Pimlico Race Course – on May 18.
While Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott was not ready to commit Country House, the Derby champ through the historic disqualification of Maximum Security, to the Preakness Sunday morning, he said that the chestnut colt came out of the race very well and was a Preakness prospect.
“Having the Derby winner, you're pretty much forced to go into the Preakness,” Mott said with a smile while meeting with the media outside his barn at Churchill Downs.
During a Sunday morning phone conversation with Maryland Jockey Club's President and General Manager Sal Sinatra, who formally invited Country House to the Preakness, Mott said the decision would be made after he talked with the homebred colt's owners. Mott said he expected to have an answer in a day or two.
Maximum Security, who led from gate to wire in the Derby but was disqualified for a bumping incident at the quarter pole, is scheduled to be shipped to trainer Jason Servis' barn at Monmouth Park on Monday. Servis reported Sunday morning that the horse exited the Derby in good order and that a Preakness start had not yet been discussed.
Ten others are on the early list of prospects for the Preakness: War of Will, who was seventh in the Derby; Bodexpress, who was 13th in the Derby; Sueno, third-place finisher in the Louisiana Derby (G2); Alwaysmining, winner of the Federico Tesio at Laurel; Anothertwistafate, winner of the El Camino Real Derby; Signalman, third in the Blue Grass (G2); Laughing Fox, winner of the Oaklawn Invitational; Blue Grass winner Owendale; Mr. Money, winner of the Pat Day Mile (G3); and Fountain of Youth (G2) runner-up Bourbon War, fourth in the Florida Derby (G1).
Derby runner-up Code of Honor might be considered for the race, Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey said. Code of Honor was scheduled to be shipped back to Belmont Park Sunday and McGaughey said he would be talking with owner William Farish about plans for the colt.
Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, a record-tying seven-time winner of the Preakness, said Sunday that he would decide in the next few days whether he will send a horse to run in Maryland's signature race. Baffert had three Derby starters – Improbable (4th), Game Winner (5th) and Roadster (15th).
Mott said that Country House will continue training at Churchill Downs and would be shipped to Pimlico during Preakness week.
Country House is a homebred chestnut son of 2010 Preakness winner Lookin At Lucky and is co-owned by Maury Shields, her nephew Eugene “Guinness” McFadden and their friends Larry, Nanci and Jaime Roth, who run as LNJ Foxwoods. Maury Shields' late husband, Jerry, bred the colt.
After a lengthy review following the Derby, the Churchill Downs stewards decided to disqualify Maximum Security and place him 17th. It was the first time that a horse who reached the wire first in the Derby was disqualified. That moved County House – who had finished second, 1¾ lengths behind Maximum Security – into the top spot, giving Mott the first Derby win of this outstanding career. Mott said it was the correct call and showed the integrity of the sport.
“To put this in perspective, it was a difficult decision because it was the Kentucky Derby,” he said. “I don't think it would have been a difficult decision if it had been the first race on the card.”
Mott, who was the youngest flat trainer inducted into the Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. at the age of 45 in 1998, has been on both sides of decisions by stewards.
“I feel terrible that I have to apologize for winning,” he said. “I really feel terrible for the connections, the owners. I hate to sit there saying something as foolish as 'I'm sorry I won,' because I don't want to give them the wrong impression that I am unhappy about winning because I'm not. I'm thrilled. I'm thrilled with the horse. I'm thrilled with everybody that's worked with the horse. I think they deserve the win.
“It's just such an unusual way to have to go to the winner's circle and win the Kentucky Derby. This Kentucky Derby will be talked about for a long time. I think it will be probably up there with [jockey Bill] Shoemaker standing up at the sixteenth pole [on Gallant Man in 1957]. It's just one of those things. It's not going to go away.
“We're going to take the win. We're going to take it and hopefully Country House comes back and runs big in the future, whatever race it may be.”
Country House signaled that he belonged on the Triple Crown trail with a second-place finish in the Risen Star (G2) Feb. 16 at Fair Grounds. After he was fourth in the Louisiana Derby on March 23, Mott sent him to the Arkansas Derby (G1) April 13. He finished third in that race at Oaklawn Park and earned just enough qualifying points to make it into the Derby field.
Mott acknowledged returning in the Preakness, two weeks after the Derby victory, is not how he typically spaces races for his horses.
“Now we're talking about a horse that has had quite a few races,” he said. “You run back in the Preakness and maybe you hit the board and maybe you don't. Maybe you win. But it probably compromises his chances a little bit to win the Belmont. That's just looking at it as a trainer and what would be normal. But the Triple Crown is not a normal situation. It never has been. I don't think they should space anything out anymore. The challenge of the Triple Crown is that it's three races close together and it takes a champion – it takes a Justify – to win those kind of things.”
Alex and JoAnn Leiblong's Laughing Fox earned an automatic spot in the Preakness Stakes with his rallying neck win in the $300,000 Oaklawn Invitational over Night Ops on Saturday. Trainer Steve Asmussen said it was premature to discuss the Preakness until he'd talked with the owners and sees the Union Rags colt in person.
“He ran a very good race yesterday. I thought he overcame a very strong speed bias,” Asmussen said. “He's been a deep closer. Watching the races at Oaklawn throughout the day and talking with Darren [assistant Darren Fleming], speed was holding. I thought he overcame and ran a really big race. We'll see how he comes out of the race. He will come here [to Churchill Downs].
“I think his fourth in the Arkansas Derby and Country House being third looks a little more significant today than it did yesterday,” he added.
Rupp Racing's Owendale, winner of Keeneland's Lexington (G3) April 13 is a strong possibility the Preakness, trainer Brad Cox said. Owendale defeated Preakness candidates Anothertwistafate and Sueno in the 1 1/16-mile Lexington.
“He breezed really well [Saturday],” Cox said of a five-furlong work in 1:02.80. “A little slow. They broke off slow but he finished up really well, galloped out great and he looked well this morning.”
Cox said the outcome of the Kentucky Derby is part of the equation.
“Good group of horses,” he said. “I feel like this horse, as long as he's doing well and training well, he can run with that group, just like he did in the Lexington. He didn't surprise us in the barn, or the rider [Florent Geroux] or anybody who had been dealing with him leading up to the Lexington. The way he was training, we had a lot of confidence in him. If we can get him in that same form, that confidence level going into the Preakness, he'll be competitive.”
Mr. Money, winner of the Pat Day Mile Saturday, could be a possibility for the Preakness while Derby 12th-place finisher By My Standards is not expected to advance to the Middle Jewel of the Triple Crown, said Dennis “Peaches” Geier, assistant to trainer Bret Calhoun.
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