The outlook of this year’s Preakness changed dramatically Wednesday morning, with trainer Bob Baffert announcing the 8-5 morning-line favorite Muth would scratch due to a fever.

Surprise Kentucky Derby winner Mystik Dan is now in prime position for the middle jewel of the Triple Crown on Saturday at Pimlico Race Course, the likely favorite in a relatively weak eight-horse field. But, with rain in the forecast and a group of “new shooters” in the starting gate, a victory is far from guaranteed.

Here’s a look at some of the major stories heading into Preakness, ranging from the race on the track to the action taking place off it.

Mystik Dan trainer Kenny McPeek raises the trophy with his family after winning the 150th running of the Kentucky Derby. (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Mystik Dan suddenly has an easier path to victory

Although there were questions about coming to Baltimore early on, the connections of Kentucky Derby winner Mystik Dan decided to give their colt a shot at becoming the first horse since Justify in 2018 to win the first two legs of the Triple Crown. Justify, of course, went on to triumph in the Belmont, becoming the 13th horse in history to win all three.

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Mystik Dan’s chances for a second consecutive trip to the winner’s circle got a significant boost when Muth was scratched. Following the post draw, Mystik Dan was the first Derby winner since I’ll Have Another in 2012 that was poised to line up in Baltimore as anything but the favorite. Now, the Kenny McPeek trainee is the top choice at 5-2 on the morning line, and the odds may go down as more backers put their money behind him. But the Goldencents colt is not the only one that stands to benefit.

Just Steel works out at Churchill Downs in the lead-up to the Kentucky Derby. (Charlie Riedel/AP)

Which other horses benefit from Muth scratching?

Muth and Baffert’s other horse, Imagination, were expected to go to the front early and set the pace. With Muth out, the pace-setting duties will fall solely to Imagination as one of the few horses with early speed. Last year, Baffert won his record eighth Preakness with a similar setup. National Treasure dictated a much slower pace than the Derby, setting up optimal conditions for the front-runner to save enough energy for a stretch run and get enough separation from any horses with closing speed. Added karma: National Treasure and Imagination even share owners.

Trainers might have been a little tentative to challenge both Muth and Imagination early on, fearing their runners would tire too soon. But, with Imagination the only one to catch, Mystik Dan and other horses might be encouraged to stalk just behind, press him on the backstretch and eventually pass by.

Mystik Dan was just off the leaders during his ground-saving run at Churchill Downs. Such a trip would seem to suit D. Wayne Lukas’ entrants, Seize the Grey and Just Steel, and possibly Tuscan Gold. If all those horses are more aggressive in their push for the front, it could create an optimal trip for late closers Catching Freedom and Uncle Heavy. Of note: Uncle Heavy is 2-for-2 on wet dirt tracks, including a win in the Grade 3 Withers Stakes.

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Trainer Chad Brown celebrates after winning the 147th Preakness Stakes with Early Voting. This year he will saddle Tuscan Gold. (The Washington Post / Via Getty Images)

Chad Brown has followed a clear game plan to win two Preaknesses. Can he make it a third with Tuscan Gold?

For all his success as one of the best trainers in the sport, Chad Brown’s only trips to the winner’s circle in the Triple Crown series have come at Preakness. Each time, he’s brought in a lightly raced new shooter off a monthlong layoff to upset the favorite.

In 2017, it was Cloud Computing, who came in with only one win to his name, a second-place finish in the Grade 3 Gotham Stakes and a third-place finish in the Grade 2 Wood Memorial. The colt put together the best race of his career to beat Derby runner-up Classic Empire and four other horses making the two-week turnaround from Kentucky. Five years later, it was Early Voting, a more accomplished runner with a win in the Grade 3 Withers Stakes and a second-place finish in the Wood Memorial. He fended off an all-too-late bid from the very talented Epicenter to win by 1 1/4 lengths.

Brown almost pulled it off again last year with Blazing Sevens, who had much more experience as a 2-year-old but arrived at Pimlico with only two previous starts in his 3-year-old campaign. He stepped up his performance each time to finish second at Old Hilltop, unable to grab the lead in a thrilling stretch duel with National Treasure.

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This year the 45-year-old trainer arrives with Tuscan Gold. The Medaglia d’Oro colt may have the least impressive record of the group, with only a win in a maiden special weight and a third-place finish in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby this year. But he fetched $600,000 at auction as a yearling, so there’s a clear belief in his abilities. And Brown has proven himself in this spot.

Gov. Wes Moore smiles in the winner’s circle after National Treasure won the Preakness Stakes last year. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

At long last, there’s a plan for fixing up the track. For real.

For decades, an annual rite of Preakness has been fretting about the race’s future. Or Pimlico’s future. Or the future of Preakness at Pimlico.

With the stroke of Gov. Wes Moore’s pen this month, a plan was put into motion that would authorize the state to issue $400 million in bonds to redevelop the decaying racetrack, build a new training site and create a new nonprofit entity to consolidate thoroughbred racing at the new Pimlico and run day-to-day operations.

“It’s not just a hope — this is actually happening this time,” said Greg Cross, chair of the Maryland Thoroughbred Racetrack Operating Authority, the body that developed the proposal and will see it carried out. Much work remains. Designs for a smaller, modern grandstand have been put forth, but they are not finalized, and there’s a small-yet-vocal group pushing back on plans to get rid of the existing dirt oval and its rich history. The location of the training site has not been chosen, either.

This time feels a bit different with 1/ST Racing and Gaming, owners of the Maryland Jockey Club, effectively agreeing to exit the state (the company will maintain ownership of the rights to Preakness and charge the state a fee). If nothing else, the politicos partying in the VIP area might even feel emboldened to take a victory lap of their own.

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Fans get to their seats before the running of the 148th Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

Will Preakness break its attendance slump?

Before COVID-19, the Preakness was often thought of as a Super Bowl-size event drawing more than 100,000 people to Northwest Baltimore. From 2001 to 2019, the on-site attendance on Preakness Day routinely reached six figures, according to the race’s media guide, with the lone exception being 2009, the first year organizers banned attendees from bringing outside alcoholic beverages into the infield. The crowd peaked at 140,237 in 2017.

At the height of the pandemic in 2020, the race was moved to October and held with zero fans. A year later, the crowd was capped at 10,000 to allow for social distancing. Even though restrictions have eased, attendance figures haven’t come close to rebounding. The 2022 race drew 42,055 people, though that year there were a few notable excuses. Derby winner Rich Strike, an 80-1 long shot, skipped Preakness, and the biggest musical acts, Megan Thee Stallion and Lauryn Hill, performed the night before.

Last year, Mage came to Baltimore after capturing the Run for the Roses and Bruno Mars headlined a concert right after Preakness, and the number ticked up only to 46,999 — slightly more than a capacity crowd at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

For 2024, organizers are pinning their hopes on rapper Jack Harlow and dance musician Gryffin, rapper Channel Tres, electronic musician and DJ Frank Walker, and DJ Chantel Jeffries to lure revelers back to the infield. Maybe the potential of a Triple Crown will draw interest, too.

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