Saturday brings us the Preakness, the second leg of the Triple Crown, brought to you from Pimlico Race Course in Maryland. A couple of key differences between the two races: while the Derby was 1 1/4 miles, the Preakness shortens up to 1 3/16 miles, thanks to the goofy configuration of Pimlico. Additionally, while they get a good crowd at the Preakness (100,000+), it's not quite as much a madhouse as the Derby. Unless you're in the infield, where you'll see more unflattering topless UM co-eds than you ever knew existed.
As the middle leg of the Triple Crown, the Preakness has always been something of the ugly stepchild of the 3 year old trilogy. It's not at the classic distance of 1 1/4 miles, and isn't the "Test of Champions", it's instead more analogous to a pit stop on the way from horse capital Kentucky to New York. It obviously doesn't get as strong a field as the Derby (though few races do), and while it's more formful as a result of the smaller fields, it's also a bit less exciting in that you're unlikely to see a bomb win the race like Giacomo or Charismatic. And even winning the race, while a tremendous accomplishment, borders on anticlimactic--either you've foiled a Triple Crown bid, or you've cleared a necessary hurdle en route to the real test in the Belmont.
Further making the Preakness something of the Fredo Corleone of the Triple Crown family is the fact that trainers now routinely skip the race to point for the Belmont, rather than run back on 2 weeks rest after the Derby. Indeed, to some level, you have to ask whether the Preakness has become a racing anachronism by its goofy timing. This was once heresy, as horses used to never win the Belmont without running in the Preakness or another horse within 2-3 weeks of the Belmont. But we've seen this broken numerous times in recent years, with Commendable, Empire Maker, Birdstone and Jazil all pulling the trick of skipping the Preakness and pointing for the Belmont victoriously. By contrast, this century we've only seen Point Given and Afleet Alex pull the Preakness-Belmont double after losing the Derby. (This fact is also reflected in the fact we've seen Bernardini and Red Bullet win the Preakness without competing in the Derby, something that hadn't occurred since Tank's Prospect in 1983.) As a result, instead of seeing races full of Derby horses taking another shot, we've gotten multiple incarnations of second-string 3 year olds taking on the leviathans from the Derby, with blow-out results--ignoring the Barbaro fiasco last year, the last 3 Preaknesses were all romps.
Then, of course, there's the 800 pound gorilla in the room, namely, the dying financial viability of Maryland racing in general and Pimlico specifically, which is always the subject of a cranky article by Plagarizing Andy Beyer every Preakness week. Pimlico, on its best day, is one of the ugliest sports facilities known to mankind, below the level of Olympic Stadium and a bowling alley in Camden. It's a money pit to the state 364 days of the year, with Preakness day and its 100,000 denizens being the only saving grace to the state's racing year. Compounding the problem is that while all the neighboring states (Delaware, West Virginia, and now Pennsylvania) have slot machines churning money that goes right back into purses, and thus gets the better horses and fuller fields, Maryland's stymied in a non-slots world, a death sentence if you're a track outside of New York, Kentucky and Florida. With the track decaying, and a once proud racing state now approaching financial brinkmanship at the track, there have been rumors the Preakness may get moved to somewhere else in the future. I'll believe it when I see it (i.e., when Magna racing cuts its losses in Maryland), but to say it's a precarious position is putting it nicely.
Regardless, we're confronted with the fact that Street Sense is two victories away from the Triple Crown. Who's in this race and what are their chances? Let's go in reverse order of preference, once again.
We're Just Happy to Be Here
#9: Mint Slewlep. On the Preakness undercard in 1999, a depressed and suicidal patron jumped onto the racetrack and stood in the path of Artax on the hope that he'd mow him down. As a result, Artax pulled up and lost the race to Yes It's True. We'll need about a dozen drunken Terrapins or the Stanford band to pull off a similar stunt here to give this guy a shot.
#8: Xchanger. The upside on this guy is that he's won on the track, with a win in the Federico Tesio 4 weeks ago, which has produced the occasional board hitter like Magic Weisner (2002) and the aforementioned Tank's Prospect. Unfortunately, it's also produced execrable commodities like Malibu Moonshine and Ah Day. This guy looks like a pure pace factor (in a race laden with early speed) and really isn't that fast, and you have to expect he'll be running in the wrong direction by the far turn.
#7: Flying First Class. You want to like this horse because he's popped a triple digit Gowanus Speed Figure and has D. Wayne Lukas in his corner. Then you back up and realize that he's also early speed in a race full of front runners, Lukas hasn't done shit in years, and that he's run nothing shy of horribly in both his route races. This really is a poor spot for him to run, he should be sprinting. Can we future him to win the King's Bishop?
Exotics Fodder, Potentially
#6: King of the Roxy. The second horse Todd Pletcher has ever run in the Preakness, with the first being the plodder Impeachment in 2000, who clunked up for a distant third. He's going to get a ton of action because of the Pletcher factor and because he ran 2nd in the Santa Anita Derby, but he's also really a sprinter trying to sneak off with a route race. It's very VERY telling that Pletcher & Team Valor, both players who spot their horses smartly yet aggressively gave the Derby absolutely no consideration either before or after the Santa Anita Derby, and instead are trying to steal a consolation prize in a weaker race. He'll be horrendously underlaid, and while he could hit 3rd if the race falls apart, I don't believe he's remotely relevant in this race.
#5: C P West. Named for Central Park West, Nick Zito sat out this year's Derby to bring the Withers runner-up to this spot instead, and somewhat wisely so, as this guy hasn't had enough of a 3yo campaign to have made him Derby ready. He was a hyped two-year old that still hasn't developed, but he's very VERY eligible to improve in his third start of the year. He also exits the Withers, which has produced Bernardini (winner, 2006) and Scrappy T (runner-up, 2005) in the last couple of years. Can't see him winning. Can see him improving for a trifecta finish.
The Sucker Horse
#4: Hard Spun. He gets ranked above the others because unlike those hopeless causes, he actually has a shot to win this race, but no, I'm not coming within 30 miles of him. I thank him and Larry Jones for running well in the Derby and giving me the exacta, but this is where I bid them adieu. I'm not the first person to notice this parallel, but I draw you back to 2003 and 2004, where good speed horses in Peace Rules and Lion Hearted, respectively, ran great 3rds and 2nds in the Derby, and everyone thought the cut-back in distance would help them. Right? Nope. Both of them were nowhere to be found when the finish line arrived, finishing over a dozen lengths behind the winners, not to mention their defeats to luminaries such as Scrimshaw and Eddington. History repeats itself here; this guy runs with the longshots up front, then begins to back up at the top of the turn and finishes well out of the money. The good news? He'll be about 3-1 with everyone and their brother playing the "shortening up" angle and operating under the misguided notion that Pimlico favors front runners (it doesn't), putting a ton of free money in the pot for the rest of us.
#3: Street Sense. Um....didn't this guy just win the Derby? Well, yes. There's obviously a ton to like, not the least of which is his breeding, his speed, and the fact he's been expertly trained to date. Yet, I can't get past the sneaking suspicion that this is the racing equivalent of a "trap game" for this horse. Putting aside the large reservations that I have that he's clearly a Churchill Downs freak (which may or may not translate elsewhere) and that he got a clean and ground-saving trip in the Derby, there are two bigger, nagging issues here. First, Carl Nafzger has freely admitted that he single-mindedly prepared Street Sense for the Derby, and gave essentially no thought whatsoever to what came after. I don't love that; I can't fault Nafzger for pointing for Derby immortality, but it's worth noting that Unbridled in 1990 flopped in the Preakness after this stellar Derby. Second, and more importantly, something that hasn't been much discussed is the distinct possibility that there was a severe rail bias on Derby Day. Consider that not only did Street Sense rally up the rail, but also that Hard Spun held clear after torrid fractions and longshot Sedgefield ran a huge race while also taking the golden rail. Maybe the three of them were riding a bias to the nth degree (something the earlier dirt races don't disprove). If so, he's a prime candidate to regress.
I freely admit that I play the contrarian more often than not in picking races, but this is a time where I think it's somewhat justified. He's a hideous play at even money, and while he may put a huge effort up on Saturday, he won't be my pick to repeat. A much more interesting idea, though, is...
#2: Circular Quay. I'm borderline shocked that this horse is running in the Preakness, as he & King of the Roxy will be the 2nd and 3rd horses Pletcher has saddled in this race, after the immortal Impeachment clunked up for third in 2000. Pletcher generally doesn't love to run back horses on short rest (not the case with King of the Roxy, who's been dormant for 6 weeks), which makes the idea of running this guy even more intriguing, as clearly blood is smelled by the nation's best trainer. Let's also look at the fact that this guy ran fairly well off an 8-week layoff in the Derby, when he changed paths about 7 times and took the overland route to a better-than-it-looked 6th place finish. Now, it'd be folly to argue that the Derby was a prep for the Preakness, but it certainly may have been a tightener for a horse that needs it. The downside? I still don't love that this horse hasn't had any success at 1 1/8 miles, and his best stakes win was a 7 furlong sprint at Saratoga last year. But the pace looks to be strong, and he'll be flying late. Prime contender, to say the least.
#1: Curlin. Unlike Circular Quay and to some degree Street Sense, I don't think we've seen this horse's best, and his 3rd place finish in the Derby (which I called extremely unlikely, proving my accumen) was a very, very good effort for a horse making his 4th start. I like him to improve even more here, sitting a better trip than he did last out (when his post hurt him tremendously) off a torrid pace and getting first run on the closers, who will have to wear him down. Like Circular Quay, I also think the Derby was a great effort to get some fitness into the horse; witness the fact he's only had a slow maintenence work since then to keep him on his toes. This is the race he moves forward and establishes himself as the co-top horse of the class with Street Sense.
2nd: Circular Quay
3rd: Street Sense
4th: C P West
Good luck to everyone and enjoy the races!