In the days after the Kentucky Derby, it seemed distinctly possible there would be precisely zero Derby starters in Preakness.

Cue the dirges.

But the middle jewel enticed not only Derby champ Mystik Dan but also fourth-place finisher Catching Freedom and pace factor Just Steel, along with a Bob Baffert runner and a new shooter from top trainer Chad Brown. So: Silence the dirges for another year.

Saturday’s 149th renewal of Preakness shapes up to be one of the more interesting editions of recent vintage.

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Start with Mystik Dan, a son of the stallion Goldencents. Much has been made of his well-nigh perfect Derby trip. Under jockey Brian Hernandez Jr., Mystik Dan, an 18-1 long shot, saved ground all the way around the racetrack, slipped through along the rail and powered to the front before desperately holding off the late bids of Sierra Leone and Forever Young.

No horse in the Derby traveled a shorter distance than Mystik Dan, who, according to GPS tracking, covered 6,608 feet — 14 feet fewer than the horse with the second-best trip. Given how close the margins were, his perfect trip was the difference between victory and defeat.

That said, don’t make the mistake of selling Mystik Dan, a deserving winner, short. In a race in which the early pace took the starch out of most runners, he was the only horse within five lengths of the early lead to finish in the top five.

The win enabled Mystik Dan’s trainer, Kenny McPeek, to complete his personal Triple Crown, and his previous Preakness win was especially notable. That came with the filly Swiss Skydiver in 2020.

Can Mystik Dan keep the Triple Crown bid alive? He has the right style — the tactical speed — to win in Baltimore. Although a Derby win is a tremendous achievement; a Triple Crown, which could be his with a win in Baltimore and another in the Belmont Stakes, confers immortality.

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But it won’t be easy. Indeed, despite his Derby win, Mystik Dan, 5-2 on the line, was not the original morning-line favorite. That honor fell to Muth. Purchased for $2 million as a yearling, Muth is trained by eight-time Preakness winner Baffert.

Muth has four wins in six career starts. In his most recent outing, he won the Arkansas Derby comfortably, and among his rivals that day was Mystik Dan, who finished six lengths back.

So there was plenty of reason to look forward to seeing how Muth would compare to Mystik Dan.

Until Muth was scratched Wednesday after spiking a fever. But of course Baffert has Imagination (6-1). Breaking from the outside under legendary European rider Frankie Dettori, Imagination figures to control the early running in this contest. If not pressed, he could go a long way on the front end, though his racing history — four seconds in six starts — leaves open the question of whether he can seal the deal.

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Preakness Stakes entrant Imagination works out at Pimlico on Thursday. (Julio Cortez/AP)

Catching Freedom (6-1) ran a bang-up race in Louisville for trainer Brad Cox. He was 8-1 that day, so a good effort was no surprise, and he has every chance to run another good one at Pimlico. Though trailing by more early, Catching Freedom had a substantially similar trip to Mystik Dan’s, racing mostly two wide and following that runner through a hole on the rail. His distance traveled, 6,622 feet, was the second shortest of any runner.

His obvious challenge, though, is his lack of gate speed. He figures to be well behind the early leaders in Preakness, and that may make it challenging for him to catch the top runners. He would be no surprise to finish in the top four, but he probably will need a couple to falter to make the winner’s circle.

Perhaps the most intriguing new shooter is Tuscan Gold (8-1). Trained by Brown, whose two Triple Crown race wins both came in Preakness, the colt by longtime top sire Medaglia d’Oro was a $600,000 purchase as a yearling.

He’s raced just three times, earning his first win in his second career start. Brown threw him in the deep end for his first try against winners, entering him in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby, one of the key Kentucky Derby preps. He ran a creditable race, finishing third, less than two lengths behind Catching Freedom, the winner, who was making his fifth start and fourth against winners.

Brown’s previous winners, Cloud Computing (2017) and Early Voting (2022), entered with just three starts in their careers, with the former, like Tuscan Gold, having only a maiden victory to his credit. Tuscan Gold’s effort in the Louisiana Derby was subsequently flattered, as Catching Freedom finished fourth in Louisville and runner-up Honor Marie finished a decent eighth despite a troubled trip.

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For good measure, Brown entered Tuscan Gold in a lesser race, the Peter Pan Stakes in New York, but scratched him to await this spot.

With high-end connections, plenty of upside and a résumé that looks a lot like his trainer’s prior Preakness winners, we’re thinking Tuscan Gold needs to be on the betting tickets.

Preakness Stakes entrant Seize the Grey works out Thursday. (Julio Cortez/AP)

Six-time Preakness winner D. Wayne Lukas enters a pair in this contest, but both will be up against it. Just Steel (15-1) finished 17th in the Kentucky Derby after pressing the pace, but with his two wins both having come at less than seven furlongs (seven-eighths of a mile), it’s hard to see 1 3/16 miles being the winning formula for him. And Pat Day Mile winner Seize the Grey (15-1) is a nice horse who seems a cut below the best in here.

Mugatu (20-1), by Maryland sire Blofeld, and Pennsylvania-bred Uncle Heavy (20-1) will need a big step forward to contend.

The goal of handicapping races isn’t to pick winners but to make money. That means the handicapper is looking for imbalances between a horse’s chances of winning and its odds. The most likely winner might not be the wisest bet, if its odds are too low.

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At the morning-line odds — which will fluctuate based on how the public bets — Mystik Dan is an enticing proposition, though the number will probably go down as more bettors wager on him.

Of the second tier of horses, the most interesting for win honors also offers the best value. Tuscan Gold is all upside, did himself proud in his first try against winners and got a major vote of confidence from his connections when they bypassed the Peter Pan to come here. At 8-1 on the morning line, he suggests a legit possibility of upsetting the apple cart.

And, if you’re looking for a bomber to run into your exotic wagers, give Uncle Heavy a gander. He rallied late to win the Withers, and you can draw a line through his fifth-place finish in the Wood Memorial. Disruptions in his training and a troubled trip were enough to spell defeat. He should be running at the end, and if a couple ahead of him falter, he could grab a share.

So let’s put a few bucks on Tuscan Gold to win. We can also key him over and under in exactas with Mystik Dan and Imagination. And we can use those three, plus Catching Freedom and Uncle Heavy, in our triple.

Good luck, and happy Preakness!

The Baltimore Banner and The Racing Biz have a content-sharing partnership leading up to the Preakness Stakes on Saturday, May 18.