Analysis: Picking Medina Spirit in Preakness is a shaky play

Preakness Stakes Horse Race
Posted at 12:20 PM, May 15, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-15 12:20:56-04

The conversation this week should be about how Medina Spirit ran a sensational race at the Kentucky Derby, raving about how the horse’s rags-to-riches story is just the type of feel-good tale that the world needs in some brutally difficult times.

Instead, the discussions are about picograms.

For now, Medina Spirit is the Kentucky Derby winner, after crossing the line ahead of all others at Churchill Downs two weeks ago. After the race a drug test showed the colt had a bit — 21 picograms per milliliter of blood, to be precise — of the steroid betamethasone in his system.

Here’s what it means for bettors now: Absolutely nobody knows if the past performances from Medina Spirit — the data that will be pored over time and again before people plunk some cash down to bet on Saturday’s Preakness Stakes at Pimlico — were on an equal playing field with other horses in those races.

Racing is always a crapshoot. This Preakness is even more of one than usual.

On paper, Medina Spirit should be good enough to get close enough to the lead early in Saturday’s race that was, at one time, likely enter as the favorite; he was installed as the 9-5 top choice in the morning line by oddsmakers before slipping behind Midnight Bourbon in betting through Friday afternoon. Should Medina Spirit get close to the lead at the start, that probably means the horse that has finished no worse than second in any of his six lifetime races would be a serious factor down the stretch.

Thing is, no one knows anymore. The latest doping mess for Medina Spirit’s embattled Hall of Fame trainer, Bob Baffert, is almost certainly going to have horseplayers questioning how good the horse is.

The smart play is to look elsewhere, and there are options.

Begin with the two other horses that are being brought back for the Preakness from the Kentucky Derby: Midnight Bourbon (sixth after being sent off at 13-1) and Keepmeinmind (seventh at 49-1). The simple fact that they’re both at Pimlico for this means their connections believe they not only came out of the Derby sound but rate big chances here even on short rest. Those are good signs.

Next, look at those who have presumably been targeted toward the Preakness: the lightly raced Crowded Trade (10-1 morning line), Rombauer (12-1), Unbridled Honor (15-1), Risk Taking (15-1) and Concert Tour (5-2). Concert Tour, like Medina Spirit, comes out of Baffert’s barn. There’s a lot to like, especially the addition of Mike Smith to ride, but there’s a real chance he uses up a bunch of his speed to escape the outside No. 10 post.

There’s a Japanese shipper that’s almost a total unknown in France Go de Ina (20-1 morning line), a horse that’ll be easy to overlook until one ponders why he was sent to Pimlico and if his braintrust has more than a hunch that he’s ready to compete.

And there’s maybe the feel-good story, the legendary D. Wayne Lukas sending Ram (30-1 morning line) to the field. On the upside, Ram’s father is American Pharoah and the horse has won back-to-back starts. On the downside, he needed nine tries to break his maiden and was beaten by a combined 78 lengths in those eight less-than-close defeats to open his career. It should be noted that Ram was down to 12-1 in betting through Friday afternoon, so someone clearly likes him.

All things being equal on paper, the five horses that jump off the page and look to be the true contenders are Medina Spirit, Crowded Trade, Midnight Bourbon, Risk Taking and Concert Tour.

Midnight Bourbon — now the likely favorite for the Preakness — should have gotten closer to the early lead in the Kentucky Derby; it didn’t happen and his chances basically evaporated right there. If that gets corrected on Saturday, he winds up as the one to beat. Crowded Trade’s workouts of late look like he’s a real threat, Risk Taking might scare some bettors off after his dismal showing in the Wood Memorial last month, and Concert Tour has some super performances on his resume but the numbers don’t suggest he’s trending the right way.

It would take a brutally bad effort for Medina Spirit to not be in the mix. The only question is whether he’s real or not.

The picks: Midnight Bourbon over Crowded Trade, Medina Spirit and a flying Keepmeinmind at the end to fill out the superfecta.