Thursday, May 15, 2008

2008 Preakness Preview: Dominance Repated?

The years on the calendar may change, but the Preakness storylines always stay the same. Every year after the Derby, we have a winner atop the 3-year-old class, followed by one of four reactions to his win and his chances to take the Triple Crown:

1. What the hell happened?!??!? This comes when you have a titanic upset in the Derby that takes pretty much everyone by surprise. Examples of this include Charismatic (1999), War Emblem (2002) and Giacomo (2005). Everyone thinks that the Triple Crown is a pipe dream. While Giacomo went on to do absolutely nothing for the rest of his career, it's notable that the other two managed to follow up their Derby upsets with Preakness wins, only to flop in the Belmont.

2. Yeah he won, but so what? This is the common reaction for a result that's an upset but not really that big an upset or a horse that was more professional than brilliant in winning the Derby. Recent examples are Real Quiet (1998) and Funny Cide (2003). Nobody's dismissing the Triple Crown after the win, but certainly nobody's thinking it's going to happen either. It's notable again that both of these horses, with considerably less hype than you'd think, won the Preakness with relative ease only to once again come up short in the Belmont.

3. Impressive. Do it again. Usually goes to a horse that looked quite good winning the Derby and was very pickable beforehand, but comes with the caveat that the racing public knows the challenge he's got ahead of him, often because of a looming nemesis still in contention who didn't fire his best shot on Derby day. This group includes Silver Charm (1997), Monarchos (2001), Smarty Jones (2004), and Street Sense (2007) . Nobody's sold on the Triple Crown, but everyone thinks that it's a possibility if they can put forward more similar efforts because clearly the talent is there. For what it's worth, only Silver Charm repeated in the Preakness, and he only did so because Touch Gold had a trip from hell.

4. We have the next Secretariat! Everyone's ready to anoint the Derby winner as the Triple Crown heir apparent because of a dominant win in Louisville. The recent examples of this are Fusaichi Pegasus (2000) and Barbaro (2006), and it goes without saying that Big Brown falls into this category as well. People are already pointing towards his potential Belmont matchup with Casino Drive as the next coming of Affirmed-Alydar while ignoring the fact that he has to win on Saturday at Pimlico. And it's worth noting that while the press had given FuPeg and Barbaro the Triple Crown after their scintillating Derby winners....both lost the Preakness.

I'm not going to pour on Barbaro's grave, except to note he would have had a helluva time beating Bernardini in the Preakness had he kept running, because Bernardini was an absolute freak and ran his eyeballs out in the Preakness. So let's instead focus on a not-bad comparison for Big Brown: Fusaichi Pegasus, who was dubbed Super Horse before and after the Derby. Check out some of the comments from the press and racing world in 2000:
BALTIMORE - Today's running of the Preakness is all about Fusaichi Pegasus. This may be as close to a one-horse race as you can get. (Boston Globe)

Beyer said if it wasn't the Preakness, he wouldn't have wagered on a race with such a strong favorite like Fusaichi Pegasus. But he felt inclined to get involved in the middle jewel, even though he can't bet against Fusaichi Pegasus. "Nobody is going to take a shot against him," Beyer says. "He is a justified 1-5 favorite. Picking someone in a win is a stretch." (

BALTIMORE -- Trainer Bob Baffert, never more than a length away from a wisecrack, knows how Kentucky Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus can lose the Preakness: Load him in the gate backward. "These other horses are going to have to run the race of their lives," said Baffert, who won the Derby and Preakness with Silver Charm (1997) and Real Quiet (1998). "This Derby winner is an extraordinary horse." (AP)
Come Preakness day, with the grounds a veritable pea soup from a rainstorm, the somewhat-heralded Red Bullet upset FuPeg, who would only win one more race in his brief career. And with rain in the forecast for Pimlico on Friday (and possibly Saturday), it begs the question: is there a Red Bullet in this field?

Without further ado, let's run down the contenders in this year's Preakness in the reverse order of their likelihood to win. While I do note that the horses I picked to finish 12th and 17th ran 1-2 in the Derby, let's ignore that and focus on my sterling pick of Curlin last year.

My Trainer Hates Me

13. Yankee Bravo. His best performance to date was an exceedingly slow win in the California Derby on a synthetic surface. Top off the fact he's slow as all hell with the fact he's not bred to get a mile, let alone the Preakness distance, and he's tough to endorse.

12. Riley Tucker. Stepped up enormously in his last race...over Polytrack. Taking that out of the equation, he's shown nothing on the dirt to indicate he belongs in a Grade 3 race, let alone the Preakness.

11. Kentucky Bear. His trainer's been hyping him to no end since his first start. He backed that up with a nice maiden win...and a scintillating 7th place finish in the Fountain of Youth behind a bunch of horses that have done nothing. And the two horses that ran in front of him in the Blue Grass came back to run 9th and 20th in the Derby. This is roughly the equivalent of DeShawn Stevenson's guarantee, only if it came against the Lakers. Next...

10. Icabad Crane. He's the only starter that's got a race over the track. As for his other merits, I'm going to be kind and say nothing, because there are none. More to the point, why would a jockey ride a horse named after The Legend of Sleepy Hollow? Wouldn't superstition keep you far far away from anything that would even reference your potential decapitation?

Longshots to Finish in the Exotics

9. Tres Borrachos. He's been beaten pretty soundly by both the aforementioned Yankee Bravo, who stinks, and Gayego, who's also in this race. There's the remote chance that he could get an easy lead and hang on for the show spot, but I think there's going to be a little more pace in this race than everyone else thinks.

8. Behindatthebar. He'll take a ton of action because of the Pletcher factor and because he won nicely in his last race, the Lexington over Polytrack. Problem is that he beat nobody of note in that race and looks to be a synthetic track fiend. There's also something a tad bizarre about the fact that Pletcher isn't going to his first call jockey, John Velazquez, here. Yes, his current jock (David Flores) isn't bad and rode him in all his victories, but you'd think if the trainer thought he had a real contender he'd do what he could to get him in the race. [Update: he's been scratched with a bruised hoof, and will point to the Belmont. --ElAngelo]

7. Giant Moon. Had trouble getting by Court Vision in his last race, who was up the track in the Derby. Tough to see how he'd improve here; the only benefit in his corner is that he's by Giant's Causeway, which is offset by his damsire being a sprinter. Looks like a great contender for the Mike Lee Stakes next month.

6. Hey Byrn. One of the three horses in this race to have a graded stakes win on the dirt (along with Gayego and Big Brown), his last meeting with Big Brown resulted in him getting trounced by 15 lengths. He rebounded somewhat to win the Holy Bull stakes at the Preakness distance, but he actually ran slower in that race than he did in his two earlier wins this year. He's going to be overbet because of his kinda-gaudy record, which is based on a couple of allowance races, and given his horrendous post (#13), he's a nice bet-against.

Exotic Hopefuls

5. Racecar Rhapsody. This horse's chances of winning should be somewhere around 50-1, as he really hasn't come that close in his last few starts against lesser company. However, he's a stone closer in a race with a fair amount of speed, and his breeding suggests he'll actually like the distance. He's a great filler for exactas, trifectas, and superfectas, and may actually help raise the prices a little bit.

4. Macho Again. One of the tougher reads in the field, as he fits speed-figure wise with Gayego off his last race, a scintillating win in the Derby Trial. Still, it's worth bearing in mind that he got an absolute dream trip in that race and now adds 3 furlongs in distance. There's a chance he's getting good at the right time. There's also a chance that he's just not that good--both starts in graded stakes races were absolute stinkbombs. Tough to leave out of triples, but also tough to love.

3. Stevil. Interesting sleeper horse. Zito's been touting this guy as one of his best all year, but the results haven't really shown on the track. His loss in the Blue Grass was a decent but not great Polytrack effort, but what stands out is his race prior to that, where he made a fair move in the Louisiana Derby, only to have horrendous traffic trouble. Top that off with some nice workouts since his last, and we may have a horse here with some upside. Not enough to catch Big Brown, but enough to consider a top-3 finish.

The Potential Upsetter

2. Gayego. More than once in the next 72 hours, you're going to hear comparisons between this horse and Louis Quatorze, who ran 16th in the 1996 Derby only to bounce back and win at Pimlico at 8-1 on Preakness day. That does provide some historical precedent from bouncing back from a bad Derby effort, but it's the exception, not the rule. Since Louis Q., the other horses that rebounded from Derby losses to win the Preakness were Point Given (5th in the Derby), Afleet Alex (3rd) and Curlin (3rd). Still, this horse is worth thinking about because he's shown the ability to pop at triple digit Gowanus Speed Figure, does have good tactical speed that might give him first run on Big Brown, and was taken out of all consideration in the Derby about 1/4 mile into the race. I'm still not wild about his breeding at this distance, but he's a lot more proven than the other 11 challengers in this race, and if Big Brown regresses enough, he's really the only plausible candidate to fill the Red Bullet role.

The Pick

1. Big Brown. Yeah, this is about as interesting as watching paint dry. But unless he trips up because of weather or his achy feet, or Gayego moves about 10 lengths forward, it's almost impossible to see how he's going to lose this race. I still don't think he's as super as everyone else does, but he's miles better than this execrable field. Sorry kids.

How to Play the Race

If you're at Pimlico on Saturday, between your Miller Lites, consider playing a Pick 3 or Pick 4 that ends in the Preakness, as you can either single Big Brown with confidence or take a stab at boxcar payoffs with Gayego or if you're really crazy, one of the other horses. If you're being more simple, I'd look to key BB and Gayego in the top 2 spots of triples and supefectas, and spread with some of the longer shots (Stevil, Racecar Rhapsody) underneath. Even with BB on top, it could still pay over $500 if the right horses come in.

Good luck to all!

[Update: 5/16, 10:31 am: Behindatthebar has been scratched with a bruised hoof. Annoying, as he was going to take a lot of money relative to his chances. Sigh. The guys at East Coast Bias are all over this race as well.]


Teddy said...

I plan to key a whiskey shot over the top of three domestic longnecks while watching the race. I sort of figure the rest will take care of itself.

El Angelo said...

Does this mean we can expect sake bombing when Casino Drive runs in the Belmont? I do like this tradition, I distinctly remember you chugging a ton of Harp when Dr. Greenfield finished last in the '01 Belmont.