Numbers say don't dismiss Derby also-rans

BALTIMORE -- Of the 19 horses who chased home Always Dreaming in the Kentucky Derby two weeks ago, just four are back to challenge anew in the Preakness Stakes on Saturday at Pimlico, with their backers hoping a scenario that has played out more often than not over the last three decades returns anew.

Since 1983, the Preakness winner has emerged from the Derby in 30 of 33 runnings. And of those 30, 18 were won by a horse who lost the Derby. Those are the percentages that the connections of Lookin At Lee (second in the Derby), Classic Empire (fourth), Gunnevera (seventh), and Hence (11th) hope are in their favor.

Classic Empire likely will be the second choice behind Always Dreaming, owing to his overall form -- including being the 2-year-old male champion of last year -- combined with a brutal trip in the Derby. He was clobbered at the start, lost position early while being shuffled back, rallied wide, and emerged from the race with minor cuts on his legs and a swollen right eye.

"He had so many things go wrong, any of which could have cost him the race," said Mark Casse, the trainer of Classic Empire. "I think it cost him a few placings at least."

All the Derby participants are coming back on just two weeks' rest. Lookin At Lee and Gunnevera both won races at age 2 in this scenario, but for the other three Derby entrants in the Preakness, this likely will be the only time in their careers they will return to race in two weeks. How they react to that will be paramount.

Classic Empire has had a fairly light campaign this year, but it has been eventful. He emerged from the Holy Bull with an abscess, twice balked at working at Palm Meadows, was rerouted to Winding Oaks Farm in Ocala, Fla., then won the Arkansas Derby. So, he basically had one race in the three months leading up to the Derby and didn't get a fair shot at Churchill Downs.

"We're running because we think he's the best horse," Casse said. "He's a tough son of a gun. We still think he's the best horse, and we want to prove it.

"He's had a lot of things thrown at him, and he continues to fight back."

Lookin At Lee and Hence both are trained by Steve Asmussen, who has won the Preakness twice, with Curlin, who was third in the 2007 Derby, and the filly Rachel Alexandra, who had won the 2009 Kentucky Oaks the day before that year's Derby. Asmussen said the decision on whether to run back in the Preakness is predicated on how horses bounce back from the Derby and how they've taken their races to that point in their careers.

"You're definitely influenced by the personality of the horse going in," Asmussen said.

In the case of Lookin At Lee, he has raced 10 times, including four starts this year, which gave Asmussen the indication even before the Derby that the two-week turnaround would not be an issue.

"The more demanding the situation is, the more he shows who he is," Asmussen said. "We expected him to respond the way he has. He's physically strong, sound, and consistent."

Hence, Asmussen said, is coming back in the Preakness because he "didn't run his race or exert a lot of effort," owing to an off track over which he never appeared comfortable.

"He was as fresh coming out of the Derby as he was going into the Derby," Asmussen said. "We felt this was the right thing to do."

Lookin At Lee has come back on two weeks' rest once -- last summer at Ellis, where he won the Ellis Park Juvenile 14 days after a maiden win there.

Gunnevera, like the Asmussen pair, was making his fourth start of the year in the Derby. As with Lookin At Lee, he has won on short rest before, having captured a maiden race at Gulfstream last July 16 in his third start, 14 days after his prior start.

Gunnevera, Lookin At Lee, and Hence all have raced four times this year, as has Always Dreaming. That foundation, Asmussen believes, has prepared his colts well for the demands of racing with what in this era is a quick turnaround.

"We've been working toward this since the start of the year, preparing them to do what they're going to do, what is expected of them," he said.