Preakness Notes: 'Distance' Should Suit Skippylongstocking, O'Neill-Trained Happy Jack Joins Cast - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report
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Preakness Notes: ‘Distance’ Should Suit Skippylongstocking, O’Neill-Trained Happy Jack Joins Cast

Happy Jack gallops at Churchill Downs

Daniel Alonso's Skippylongstocking tuned up for the May 21 Preakness Stakes (G1) at Pimlico Race Course with a five-furlong workout Friday morning at Palm Meadows, Gulfstream Park's satellite training facility in Palm Beach County, Fla.

The Saffie Joseph Jr.-trained colt, who finished third in the April 9 Wood Memorial (G2), worked in company with Alonso's Novo Sol, a multiple Group 1 stakes winner in Brazil who captured an allowance on Tapeta and finished third on turf in the April 2 Pan American (G2) in his two U.S. starts. Both horses were timed in 59.60 seconds.

“I thought it was a very good work,” Joseph said. “It went really well for both horses.”

Skippylongstocking had won one of his first seven starts – his maiden-breaking triumph coming by 10 ½ lengths in a one-turn mile race at Gulfstream Park in September – before winning his first race around two turns March 2. The Kentucky-bred colt made a sweeping move into the stretch in a 1 1/8-mile optional claiming allowance before drawing off to win by 3 ½ lengths and earn a shot at a Kentucky Derby (G1) prep. The Joseph trainee raced evenly while running on the outside throughout the 1 1/8-mile Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, finishing third behind Mo Donegal and Early Voting.

“The two mile-and-an-eighth races have definitely moved him forward. It was [jockey] Junior Alvarado's recommendation after he ran the one-turn mile race before and stopped. He said 'Try him two turns and longer. It might be a better fit.' He was 100 percent spot-on. He ran two really good races,” Joseph said.

The 1 3/16-mile distance of the Preakness isn't a concern for the trainer of the son of 2016 Preakness winner Exaggerator.

“I think the distance is going to help him, but obviously he's going to face quality horses like Epicenter and the Chad Brown one that beat him in the Wood [Early Voting],” Joseph said. “We're just taking a chance. We feel the distance is going to help him. We'll hope for the best.”

Skippylongstocking is scheduled to arrive at Pimlico Sunday morning following a van ride from Florida.

O'Neill-Trained Happy Jack Joins Preakness Cast

One of these days, Calumet Farm's homebred Happy Jack is due to run a big one in a big race.

Trainer Doug O'Neill hopes that day comes Saturday, May 21, when Happy Jack runs in the 1 3/16-mile Preakness at historic Pimlico Race Course.

After speaking with Calumet owner Brad Kelley, O'Neill reported that Happy Jack will get a second try in this year's Triple Crown. He finished 14th in the May 7 Kentucky Derby (G1) at odds of 23-1. The colt is still at Churchill Downs. O'Neill, back at his California base, said Happy Jack will ship to Pimlico “probably on Tuesday.”

“We did a bunch of diagnostics on him, pulled blood,” O'Neill said. “He is checking all the boxes of a horse that exited his recent race in good shape. We like the Preakness distance, and we like a shorter field than the 20 horses in the Derby.”

Then, after a pause, O'Neill said, “Oh, by the way, his sire, Oxbow, won this race and that is kind of a cool thing.”

Oxbow, also owned by Calumet Farm, won the 2013 Preakness for Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas. Oxbow got the blanket of Black-Eyed Susans after winning the race at odds of 15-1.

“Mr. Kelley runs a huge operation,” O'Neill said. “He has a lot of skin in the game. He loves his horses and takes no shortcuts and surrounds them with the best people he can find. If a horse is doing well and showing they can get in and compete against the finest, he is game that way. I love it. No guts, no glory.”

Of course, O'Neill has a little history of his own in the Middle Jewel of the Triple Crown, having saddled Kentucky Derby (G1) winner I'll Have Another for a victory in the 2012 Preakness.

Unraced as a 2-year-old, Happy Jack broke his maiden in his first career start, winning a six-furlong race at Santa Anita on Jan. 22 by 1 ¼ lengths. O'Neill was so impressed that he sent the colt to the Feb. 6 Robert B. Lewis (G3), in which he finished fifth, beaten 27 ¼ lengths.

He finished a distant third in his next two starts, the San Felipe (G2) March 5 and Santa Anita Derby (G1) April 9.

“In the mornings, Happy Jack has shown us some pretty special stuff,” O'Neill said. “To win his debut the way he did, we know there is definitely talent there. I could see him jumping up and winning a big race like this.”

O'Neill said he will put the blinkers back on Happy Jack for the Preakness. He shed them for the Derby after the colt wore them in three of his first four starts. Happy Jack will also have a new rider for the Preakness in Tyler Gaffalione. Rafael Bejarano rode him in the Derby.

“It's not a big thing,” O'Neill said. “Tyler will be at Pimlico and Rafael was not planning on riding there [Preakness Day].”

Happy Jack will gallop daily at Churchill before shipping to Pimlico Tuesday morning. O'Neill said he expects to be on the grounds either Wednesday or Thursday.

Creative Minister's Team Taking $150,000 Swing

Trainer Kenny McPeek doesn't mind swinging for the fences, and he's got two Triple Crown race victories to show for it.

In 2002, McPeek ran Pimlico's Sir Barton winner Sarava back in the Belmont Stakes (G1), for which his $142.50 win mutuel remains a record for the Triple Crown finale. McPeek then won the COVID-delayed 2020 Preakness with the 11-1 shot Swiss Skydiver, who had finished second in the Kentucky Oaks (G1) but beat eventual Horse of the Year Authentic at Old Hilltop.

But this swing is going to cost $150,000, which is required to supplement the Derby Day allowance winner Creative Minister for the 147th Preakness, because he isn't nominated to the Triple Crown.

“We have felt like this was a real nice horse from the beginning,” McPeek said. “He was behind schedule last year as a 2-year-old. He had what I call some growing issues, and we had to turn him out a couple of times. When we got him ready this spring, I didn't Triple Crown nominate him because I didn't think he'd be ready. Since then, he's just blossomed. His last two starts have been completely professional.”

After finishing second by a neck in his debut March 5 at Gulfstream Park, the son of 2012 Preakness third-place finisher Creative Cause ripped off 1 1/16-mile maiden and allowance victories at Keeneland and Churchill Downs, respectively.

“One of the partners, Greg Back, has been really ambitious to run in stakes races,” McPeek said. “He wanted to run in a stakes out of a maiden win. I insisted that we go in (an allowance) race and then after that, 'we'll go wherever you want.' At this point, we're going to give him a shot at the Preakness. He ran 1:42 1/5 going a mile and a sixteenth the other day. I'm hopeful that puts him in the mix.”

While Creative Minister is eligible for the $100,000 Sir Barton on the Preakness undercard, restricted to horses that have not won an open stakes, “we swing high and hard,” McPeek said. “Yes, the Sir Barton would be an easier spot. We could wait for the Matt Winn here at Churchill, as well. But he's on tune right now. The horse is doing super. Epicenter has been running all year. How that unfolds, it's hard to say, with the Derby winner out. The race is wide open. We're going to stick him in there and give him a chance.

“Weirder things have happened,” he added of Creative Minister's chances of winning the Preakness. “It happened last Saturday. You just never know in this game if you have a horse doing well.”

Still, McPeek admits there was some sticker shock at the cost of making Creative Minister eligible for the Middle Jewel of the Triple Crown's.

“Well, they blinked a little bit,” McPeek said. “I own part of the horse as well, so I also have to pay toward the supplement. But we're OK with that. In hindsight, I probably should have nominated him (for $600 by Jan. 29). But he hadn't even raced yet, and it didn't look like he was going to make that window of time. But the race the other day was ultra-impressive, and maybe he's taking us there. We're going to see how good he is.”

Picked out by McPeek for $180,000 at Keeneland's 2020 September Yearling sale, Creative Minister's ownership features a 45 percent stake apiece by Paul Fireman's Fern Circle Stables and Back, with the trainer retaining 10 percent.

Epicenter Program Favorite With or Without Rich Strike

Maryland Jockey Club oddsmaker Keith Feustle expected to make Winchell Thoroughbreds' Kentucky Derby (G1) runner-up Epicenter the favorite for the 147th Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course even before Thursday's defection of Rich Strike, the Derby winner at 80-1 odds.

“Once I heard Epicenter was a 'go,' there was no doubt in my mind that he was going to be the firm favorite for the Preakness,” Feustle said. “Now, a lot hinges as far as the price on whether Zandon goes or doesn't go. I'm thinking in my mind right now that if Zandon doesn't go, Epicenter will be in the 7-5 range more than likely.”

With Kentucky Derby third-place finisher Zandon not expected to run, Feustle said Wood Memorial (G2) runner-up Early Voting, Zandon's stablemate who bypassed the Derby to await the Preakness, will be close in the odds with Kentucky Oaks (G1) heroine Secret Oath as the second and third choices.

“Early Voting maybe a touch lower in the odds than Secret Oath, and we'll go from there on the rest,” Feustle said. “But very close between them, anywhere from 3-1, 4-1, 9-2. But Epicenter is going to be a solid favorite, especially if Zandon doesn't go.

“Epicenter, for what he did, it was just a valiant effort in the Derby. I was a little skeptical about him leading into the Derby, and I went back and watched his races. He got back on my radar. Just a tough beat for the connections, for a horse to run that hard, that well and just a great ride by Joel Rosario, just to get run down.”

Even if Zandon would run, Feustel said Epicenter might be 9-5. Another factor is Epicenter's trainer, with Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen being a two-time Preakness Stakes winner in addition to holding the record for the most victories in North American history.

“The betting public is obviously familiar with Asmussen, too,” Feustle said. “And the horse has been consistently faster than anybody in the field. That factors in making the odds, knowing what the public is going to gravitate toward.”

Epicenter galloped Friday morning shortly before 6 at Churchill Downs under exercise rider Roberto Howell.

Lukas Keeping Oaks Winner Secret Oath Happy

Kentucky Oaks (G1) winner Secret Oath galloped at Churchill Downs under exercise rider Danielle Rosier shortly after the track opened at 5:30 a.m. Friday.

“Just going along with the routine and keeping her happy,” said Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, seeking a seventh Preakness victory.

Lukas said Secret Oath, who was third against males in the Arkansas Derby (G1) before her Kentucky Oaks score, will have a couple of open gallops but not a timed workout before the Preakness. He plans to leave Louisville early Monday morning to van Secret Oath and Ethereal Road to Pimlico.

Lukas praised how well Ethereal Road has done in recent days after being scratched from the Kentucky Derby but said he's sticking with plans to run the colt in the Sir Barton. He hopes to use that spot as a launching pad to New York's Belmont Stakes (G1).

“Boy, he's having a great week,” said Lukas on the decision to go in the restricted Sir Barton rather than the Preakness, “I wonder if I really screwed up there. But he's going in the Sir Barton. I'm going to try to make the Belmont Stakes with him.”

Cypress Creek Equine LLC's Un Ojo, the one-eyed winner of Oaklawn Park's $1 million Rebel Stakes (G2), jogged twice around the Churchill Downs oval under Clay Courville, the son and assistant to trainer Ricky Courville. Un Ojo, withdrawn from Derby consideration because of a minor foot bruise five days before the race, is scheduled to work Saturday with jockey Colby Hernandez. Ramon Vazquez, who recently moved his tack to California, has the mount in the Preakness.

Simplification Keeping it Simple at Pimlico

Once again Friday morning, Simplification's morning routine was pretty much a variation on his name: simple.

Jesus 'Chino' Prada, assistant to trainer Antonio Sano, said the colt went out on the track with the pony at 6 a.m. and galloped about 1 ½ miles as the son of Not This Time prepares for the 147th Preakness (G1).

“Everything is excellent with him,” Prada said.

Simplification arrived at the Pimlico Stakes Barn at 5 a.m. Tuesday following is four-place finish in the Kentucky Derby. He has been the only horse on site this week, but other runners will be arriving in the coming days to get ready for the Preakness and the 15 other stakes being run by the Maryland Jockey Club at historic Pimlico Race Course May 20 and 21.

Owner/Trainer Rudy Sanchez-Salomon's Shake Em Loose is scheduled to breeze on turf at Laurel Park before a decision is made whether he will run in the Preakness or the James W. Murphy on turf.

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