BALTIMORE — Much of the attention leading up to the 147th Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course focused less on the horses racing on the sizzling Saturday evening than those who weren’t even in attendance.
Rich Strike, the 80-1 long shot winner of the Kentucky Derby two weeks ago, was conspicuously absent after owner, Rick Dawson, and trainer, Eric Reed, decided to give the horse more time to rest and recover for next month’s Belmont Stakes.
Bob Baffert, one of horse racing’s most successful and controversial trainers, also did not make the trip to Baltimore. The 69-year-old is still serving his 90-day suspension from the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission after Medina Spirit, who finished first at last year’s Kentucky Derby, was disqualified and stripped of the title following a positive test for betamethasone, an anti- inflammatory medication. Medina Spirit collapsed and died last December after a workout.
Without Rich Strike, Baffert, and the buzz of a horse potentially going for the Triple Crown, Derby runner-up Epicenter took center stage as the 6-5 pre-race favorite to win the 1 3/16-mile race. But it was Early Voting who jumped out near the front of the race behind Armagnac and held off Epicenter by 1¼ lengths in a winning time of 1:54.54 to claim the second jewel of the Triple Crown in hot and muggy conditions. Creative Minister finished third, and Secret Oath, the only filly in the field, was fourth.
“Honestly, I was never worried,” trainer Chad Brown said of the quick pace. “Once we had a good target, I actually preferred that. We were fine to go to the lead, but I thought down the backside it was going to take a good horse to beat us. And a good horse (Epicenter) did run up on us near the wire, and that was about the only one that could run with us.”
RICH STRIKE:Owner does best for his horse by skipping Preakness Stakes
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Early Voting skipped the Kentucky Derby in order to prepare for the Preakness and started the race at 5-1 odds along with Secret Oath. The victory was a call back five years ago, when Brown and Early Voting’s owner, Seth Klarman, faced a choice: They could race their then 3-year-old thoroughbred, Cloud Computing, at the 2017 Kentucky Derby or they could wait until they felt the horse was ready to compete later that month at the Preakness Stakes. Brown and Klarman elected to skip the Derby, and Cloud Computing would go on to win the Preakness.
The two repeated the same game plan on Saturday, reasoning that early voting would be more prepared against the nine-horse field at the Preakness rather than the 20-horse field at the Kentucky Derby.
“They deserve all the credit,” jockey José Ortiz said of Brown and Klarman. “They had an option to run in the Derby and they passed. It’s very hard to get a winner to pass on the Derby and they made the right choice by the horse. I don’t think he was seasoned enough to run in a 20 -horse field, and they proved that they were right today.”
“This horse just didn’t have the experience,” Brown added. “He is out there on loose leads. He didn’t have dirt in his face really. A nice horse, but to throw him in a 20-horse field would not have worked out well for him, I don’t believe. It really wasn’t that hard of a decision.”
With the victory, Ortiz earned his first Preakness title, Brown won his second, and Klarman, who grew up in Baltimore three blocks away from Pimlico, got to celebrate a Preakness victory on his 65th birthday. Ortiz, a Puerto Rico native, won the 2017 Belmont Stakes with Tapwrit.
“I’ve lived my adult life in Boston, but it’s an incredible experience to come back to my hometown and have a chance to compete at this level,” Klarman said. “José gave a brilliant ride. It’s one of the highlights of a career owning race horses.”
Early voting became the latest shooter — a horse that does not race at the Kentucky Derby — to win the Preakness. Between 1984 and 2016, only three shooters won the Preakness, but since Cloud Computing’s victory in 2017, there have been three more: Swiss Skydiver in 2020, Rombauer last year and now Early Voting.
“We planned it out, and we executed with perfection,” Ortiz said, “and we came out top.”