Baffert, 'Improbable' chase Preakness after Derby wipeout

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New York (AFP)

Veteran trainer Bob Baffert will have another milestone in his sights on Saturday when he unleashes Improbable on a depleted Preakness Stakes field, aiming for a record-breaking eighth victory in the US horse racing showpiece.

After a dramatic Kentucky Derby, the opening leg of the Triple Crown series, Saturday's Preakness at Pimlico in Baltimore is more notable for the horses that aren't running.

Maximum Security, who crossed the finish line first at Churchill Downs before being disqualified, was pulled out of the Preakness soon after that bombshell result.

Country House, the 65-1 long shot who was named winner of the Derby after Maximum Security's disqualification, was also pulled out after developing a cough.

With Kentucky Derby second-placed finisher Code of Honor and third place Tacitus also absent, it has left Baffert's Improbable -- who finished fourth in Kentucky -- as the 5/2 favourite.

Baffert believes Improbable, who has yet to win a race this year, has a good chance of mounting a strong challenge if he can make a smooth start.

"He still looks really healthy, which is what you want to see this time of year," Baffert said. "We don't want to embarrass ourselves. He just needs to get away (from the gate) better. For a horse with as much natural speed as he has, he has trouble getting going.

"For some reason, the first hundred yards, he scrambles a little bit."

Baffert, who is tied with 19th century trainer R.W. Walden with seven Preakness wins, acknowledged the field had opened up in the absence of Maximum Security, Country House, Code of Honor and Tacitus.

"It's a pretty wide-open group, and to me it's still an important race," said Baffert. "I think (Improbable) will inherit being the favorite, but I wouldn't say he'll be a heavy, heavy favorite. He was bottled up in the Derby and was fifth pretty much the whole way."

Baffert's last two wins at the Preakness were part of the Triple Crown-winning successes of Justify in 2018 and American Pharoah in 2015.

Those wins came loaded with pressure, but Baffert plans to enjoy Saturday's race, which is less pressurised than the Derby.

"I like the Preakness," Baffert said. "I really enjoy it. It's a lot of fun, and the pressure is off."

The 13-horse field also contains War of Will, who will start as second favourite at odds of 4-1. War of Will's Hall of Fame trainer Mark Casse has yet to taste victory in a Triple Crown race, and suffered an agonising defeat in the 2017 race when his Classic Empire was narrowly beaten at the line by Cloud Computing.

Casse said that while he was no longer holding onto the loss, he was desperate to challenge again this weekend.

"One thing about me, good or bad (result), my memory is pretty short," Casse said.

"I tend to look forward and not back. I don't worry about it much. I just try to do better the next time.

"Somebody said to me, 'This is good revenge,'. "I want to win the Preakness. We lost it two years ago (by a head). As long as our horse is happy and healthy, I think we should be there."