The Preakness Stakes Is Looking for a Star

BALTIMORE — On Oct. 24, 1887, the United States House of Representatives adjourned so the distinguished gentlemen could come to the old racetrack in Baltimore to watch a horse named Parole beat Ten Broeck and Tom Ochiltree in what has become known as the Great Race.

It is odds on that future generations will not be talking about the 144th running of the Preakness Stakes on Saturday. The colt that crossed the finish line first in the Kentucky Derby — Maximum Security — is not here. Nor is the one who became the winner of that race through a disqualification — Country House.

The Preakness Stakes will still be run, of course. It will be the first time since 1951 that the second leg of the Triple Crown will not include the first four horses that crossed the finish line in the Kentucky Derby.

[Need help choosing a Preakness winner? Read our experts’ picks.]

There are 13 contenders signed on to race for $1.5 million in prize money. Some are trained by familiar faces, like the Hall of Famers Bob Baffert and D. Wayne Lukas; one is trained by a new and intriguing one: Kelly Rubley, who is trying to become the first female trainer to win the Preakness.

She is an unlikely race tracker. Rubley grew up Pulaski, N.Y., a small town near Lake Ontario that no one will mistake for horse country.

She rode hunter-jumpers through high school but abandoned the equestrian life for one of an educator, earning bachelor’s degrees in biology and chemistry and master’s in secondary education and administration at the State University of New York at Oswego.

Rubley taught science and biology for four years near her hometown. She was an administrator another three. But she never could really kick her love for horses.

So in 2009, she headed south to Fair Hill, a bucolic, European-style training center in Elkton, Md. It is definitely horse country, and she fell hard for it. She found work as an exercise rider for Barclay Tagg, an old school and taciturn trainer who won the Derby and Preakness with Funny Cide in 2003.

Within two years, she was Tagg’s assistant, overseeing a string of horses in Florida, New York and the Mid-Atlantic. She missed Fair Hill, though, and when Jimmy Toner, another traditionalist, asked her to run his operation there, Rubley jumped at the opportunity.

Five years ago, Rubley decided she was ready to strike out on her own. She cultivated enough owners to operate a 40-horse stable. She fell into a gelding named Alwaysmining, which has brought her to Baltimore and a go at history.

He had run four races, winning one, when Runnymede Racing bought him privately from another owner. It so happened that Rubley was in the right place at the right time. She was renting a barn from Runnymede at Fair Hill, and they gave her the horse.

Now, Alwaysmining has won six consecutive races at Laurel Park near Washington and has been given a respectable 8-1 shot to win the Preakness.

Fifteen other women have brought horses to Baltimore seeking a Triple Crown event victory. Nancy Alberts posted the best finish when Magic Weisner ran second in 2002. Alberts and Magic Weisner were Maryland-based, too.

Rubley does not want to get too caught up in history.

“I think it’s more about the horse rather than me being a woman trainer,” she said. “The horse brought me here. I’m very fortunate to have him in my barn.”

While Maximum Security may be recovering at Monmouth Park on the Jersey Shore from his wild and taxing race in the Kentucky Derby, his owners, Gary and Mary West, are attempting to salve their broken hearts with an attempt at having the disqualification overruled in federal court. Country House is a no-show because of an infection that will keep him out of the Belmont Stakes at well.

Still, there are some pretty good horses running in the Preakness.

The 5-2 morning line favorite, Improbable, finished fifth in the Derby but was moved up to fourth after the disqualification of Maximum Security. He has not won a race this year after going undefeated last year as a 2-year-old.

“I feel like we’re favored by default this year,” conceded Elliott Walden of WinStar Farm, which co-owns Improbable. “But this horse has a good résumé. He ran very well in the Derby without hitting the board.”

Improbable is also trained by Baffert, who campaigned American Pharoah (2015) and Justify (2018) to Triple Crowns. Baffert is trying to win a record-setting eighth Preakness.

War of Will, the 4-1 second choice, also is coming out of a memorable Derby effort. His jockey, Tyler Gaffalione, seemed to have found another gear with the colt as they turned for home at Churchill Downs, but they tangled with Maximum Security when the leader veered out. His trainer, Mark Casse, said War of Will bounced out of the Derby stronger.

“This horse has a lot of energy, and he’s extremely tough,” he said.

Rubley said she knew what she had in Alwaysmining. History or not, she likes her chances.

“We’re just here to have fun with our horse,” Rubley said. “I think ours is a great story. There’s been a lot of negative press in the racing world of late, and this is kind of a hometown horse that proved to be pretty special.”

Joe Drape has written about horse racing since arriving at The New York Times in 1998. He is the author of three books about the sport, including The Times best seller “American Pharoah: The Untold Story of the Triple Crown Winner’s Legendary Rise.”

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