Okay, a 50-1 shot (who was well over 100-1 in overseas books and exotics pools) won the Kentucky Derby. What do we make of this implausible upset?
After Mine That Bird's shocking victory in the Kentucky Derby, everyone has rushed to try to compare his victory to either Giacomo's win in 2005, Cannero II's victory in 1971, or Doneraile's 91-1 upset in 1913. Two of the three comparisons are utterly wrong. Doneraile may as well have run in the Middle Ages; the horse ran 62 times in his career. Giacomo, as previously noted, basically won by default on a day where Afleet Alex and Bellamy Road turned in subpar performances, and nobody else stepped up to the plate. While it wasn't surprising that Giacomo only won one other race after that, it also wasn't a shocker that he finished in the money in the Derby. Before the Derby, Giacomo had shown some ability in graded stakes races and head been keeping good company. We actually know people who bet Giacomo in trifectas and superfectas. By contrast, only person we know that cashed a ticket on Mine That Bird is Angelo's mother, who pulled out of a hat a $10 win ticket on the horse at a Derby party.
Cannonero II is an interesting comparison, because like MTB, he was dismissed based on losing races at crappier tracks (in Venezuela, for crying out loud), and shocked everyone by being better than thought on Derby Day. He carried this over to the Preakness, before flopping in the Belmont and having an undistinguished career afterward. The problem with the Cannonero II comparison is that there wasn't an obvious reason for the horse's win besides talent. Mine That Bird, by contrast, clearly took advantage of a muddy track and a superb ride from Calvin Borel. Had the track come up fast on Derby day, it's likely that Mine That Bird would have run well, but not won.
So what else did we learn from the Derby besides that Mine That Bird likes the slop and is a better horse than his PP's showed? Shockingly little. The muddy track clearly impacted other horses as well, as absolutely nobody showed any improvement in the race, and most horses regressed. It's very reminiscent of 2004, where a storm annihilated the track an hour before the race, and everyone besides Smarty Jones and Lion Heart ran like garbage as a result. Which makes handicapping the Preakness even harder, because we still have no real answers on our synthetic surface questions and are presented with some interesting new shooters this time.
So even though we flopped miserably on handicapping the Derby, let's turn the page and do a countdown for the Preakness. We note that we've picked the winner of the last two Preaknesses, meaning that the safe play is probably boxing the first four horses we eliminate. For the record, we're making these picks assuming the track is fast; if it rains, we'll update it the day of with some thoughts and changes.
13. Flying Private. As we'll explore a little later, there's good reason to think the slop at Churchill Downs hid the true ability of at least one of the horses that ran in the Derby. This guy isn't him. To put it bluntly, he ran dead last in the Derby and was a longshot to begin with based on a career where he accomplished nothing. There's zero indication that he should improve by moving to Maryland. For all the hullabaloo over whether Rachel Alexandra would be excluded based on ringers being entered, people should be more focused on Lukas potentially ruining a perfectly decent horse in the Triple Crown, yet again.
The Wrong Newcomers
12. Tone it Down. This year's local hope for the scions of Maryland, he faded to third in the Federico Tesio stakes two weeks ago to finish behind the immortal Miner's Escape and Hehasnosay. His speed figures are slow enough that he's not competitive (then again, so were Mine That Bird's), but more problematically, he's outclassed and should get fried on the front end. Pass.
11. Luv Gov. If the name sounds familiar, it's because we briefly mentioned this guy last summer as one of two horses owned by racing doyenne Marylou Whitney that pays tribute to the erstwhile governor of New York. (Check out this piece, where Whitney's husband tries to admit that they don't hate Spitzer, and then commits a bigger party foul by admitting that they read the New York Post.) While he ran nicely breaking his maiden on the Derby undercard, there's good reason to think that was a function of the slop and no real reason to think he'll be competitive at this level.
10. Big Drama. A lot of people are giving this newcomer a big shot in the Preakness, but we're just not seeing it. He's been out once this year, where he crossed the finish line first in the Swale (at 7 furlongs, 2 1/2 shorter than the Preakness), but was DQ'd to second for bumping the runner up while tiring in the stretch. His previous successes were in Florida statebred races and at the Delta Jackpot, which is Louisiana's equivalent of the now-esteemed Sunland Derby. While Mine That Bird did teach us a lesson about scoffing at stakes at slots-fueled tracks, we still don't see much class in this horse. To top it off, he's an intractable front-runner and has pure sprint breeding (Montbrook out of a Notebook mare) that doesn't suggest he'll stay the distance against good horses. We like him as a toss-out, which is good, because he'll probably be around 8-1.
The Derby Repeaters
9. General Quarters. There appear to be two strategies for this horse: either send him to attend to the pace and have him try to waltz home after being near reasonable fractions, or have him make one run later, and watch him finish badly. Given that he probably can't survive a speed duel, and jockey Julian Leparoux is more known for patient rides (a la Pat Day, the Good Hands Man), it's more likely we'll see him at the rear of the field, and out of contention.
8. Friesan Fire. The beaten Derby favorite! While many will invoke Louis Quatorze, Point Given and Afleet Alex as examples of Derby underperformers that roubounded in the Preakness, we're against. We had an almost identical situation two years ago, where Circular Quay ran poorly in the Derby off a long layoff and then was rushed into the Preakness. How'd that fare? Poorly, he was well out of the money and looked like a short horse. Making FF's case worse, he's supposedly a slop monster, but did nothing in the soup at Churchill except get his beat up on his legs from contact with other horses while finishing next to last. As there's no indication that this horse is anything special away from Fairgrounds, we'll bet against until he proves us wrong, especially if he's 6-1 or so.
7. Musket Man. While we'd argue the slop changed the outcome for a lot of horses in the Derby, we're not so sure that's the case here, as this horse ran roughly what you'd expect him to run: a high 90's GSF while showing no punch in the stretch. It just so happened that because I Want Revenge scratched and nobody besides the winner ran a lick that this made him the show finisher. We're still unconvinced this guy wants any part of a route race, and while he'd be a fun horse to own, we think he's set here to regress and vacation until the late summer stakes races.
6. Mine That Bird. Yes, he's better than everyone thought. He's got some talent and his horrible rides in New Mexico clearly made him appear worse than he was. But it's impossible to dispute that he didn't get a perfect confluence of events on Derby day. A solid pace. A wet track. The scratch of I Want Revenge and Quality Road's withdrawal. A perfect ride by Borel. Luck when the rail was open pretty much the whole way around. Take away any of those things, and we're probably talking about a different winner of the Derby and he's this year's version of Sedgefield.
Is he going to get all of those breaks again? Clearly that's impossible, because Borel isn't riding him, and he instead gets salty veteran Mike Smith in the irons. While Smitty's a perfectly fine jockey and a Hall of Famer, we can't think of a single race where he was the difference between winning and losing. (And he's ridden Skip Away, Holy Bull and Zenyatta, for crying out loud.) Even worse, it's unlikely that we'll have a wet track again, and it's even less likely that he'll get a perfect rail-skimming trip . What's more likely is that his Preakness resembles Giacomo's: clunk up for a piece, but never threaten the winner.
5. Pioneerof the Nile. Minor and useless prediction: this horse, and not Mine That Bird, will be the second choice in the Preakness. He's a horrible idea at 5-2, as we still have zero proof that he can crack a 100 Gowanus Speed Figure, still hasn't proven he likes dirt, and is wheeling back off two weeks after having all his prior races strategically spread apart. It's unlikely he'll be at the back of the pack come the end of the race, but this is not the spot to jump on his bandwagon.
The Interesting Newcomers
4. Take the Points. Speedster from the Todd Pletcher barn with very obscure breeding (Even the Score out of a Fred Astaire mare?), this guy's an interesting read who may offer value underneath if he doesn't get fried on the front end. He possesses good tactical speed but isn't a need-the-lead horse (unlike, say, his stablemate Join in the Dance), and should be near the front. His last two dirt efforts were very good: a nice win in the mud, followed by a strong showing in an allowance race at Gulfstream. He followed that up with a pair of mediocre efforts on a synthetic surface, which Pletcher pretty clearly sent him to so to avoid Pletcher's other horses. Can he improve moving back to the dirt at 30-1? We say yes, and like him to round out superfectas.
3. Terrain. We've been waiting for this horse to get a dirt fast track for a while now, and we're finally going to get our wish. Too bad it's in the Preakness, where he might be a little outclassed. But our like for him is not dissimilar to our reasonsing for liking West Side Bernie in the Derby (yeah, that sucked, but shaddup): he hasn't had a fair shake to run well in a while. His Delta Jackpot race to close out 2008 was compromised by a moronic ride his jockey sucked him into a speed duel, making him fade. His Louisiana Derby and Blue Grass weren't awful, but they occurred, respectively, on slop and Polytrack, neither of which is probably his optimal surface. Finally, he's united with a competent rider, a fast track, and should get first run on the deep closers like Mine That Bird. Look for him to come flying late at a huge price.
2. Rachel Alexandra. Okay, we'll say it: Rachel Alexandra is this year's Big Brown. She's a very talented filly, but her reputation is beyond her accomplishments at the moment, given that she's won a whopping one Grade 1 race, her 20 1/4 length romp in the Oaks last out. And as pointed out by many (including Steve Crist), the field for the Oaks, like last year's Derby field, was atrocious. This makes it pretty tough to gauge if this girl is really a freak like everyone thinks or is simply another very good horse that got lucky that her competition stinks.
More to the point, she's being asked to do a lot here. Take on 12 other horses. Run back in two weeks time. Tend to a pace that should be somewhat brisk. Adjust to a new trainer (okay, this may not be a big factor). And for all this we're supposed to take 2-1 odds? Look, if she wins and she's the next Ruffian, Go For Wand, or even Surfside, we'll eat crow and admit it. But for now, she's a horrible play at short odds in the Preakness, and we're looking elsewhere for the win slot.
(As a total aside, Rick Reilly gets paid $3.5 million apparently to get the facts wrong. By no measure is Rachel Alexandra "the fastest racehorse in the world". Hell, she's not even the fastest filly in the world, that title would probably go to either Goldikova or Zenyatta. She's not "undefeated in four tries", she's 4-for-4 this year and is 7-for-10 life time. But hey, great job otherwise.)
1. Papa Clem. We have no idea how much horses like Pioneerof the Nile were hurt by the slop. By contrast, we do know this guy was hurt by the slop. His Louisiana Derby was a definitively meh effort on a wet surface, which he followed up with a good win in the Arkansas Derby on a fast track (he improved by over 10 GSF points in between). Given that history, it wasn't really a surprise to see him run a meh 4th in the Derby in the mud, especially since he was slammed by Pioneerof the Nile in the stretch and may have finished 2nd with a slightly cleaner trip. It's not at all a stretch to think he'll return to his Arkansas Derby form, which would have everyone not named Mine That Bird and Rachel Alexandra playing catch up with him. Since we're against those two because of the lack of slop and the suspect nature of the filly's competition, he's the most logical pick, and should be a square price (8-1?).
Playing the Race
Once again, if you like anyone in this race, a win bet is a very good way to go, because everyone other than Rachel Alexandra should be an okay price, if not commensurate with their chances of winning. If you're looking for a 4-digit payday though, check out the races preceding the Preakness and look into Pick 3's an Pick 4's. Tossing Rachel Alexandra and Pioneerof the Nile will inflate the odds in the multi-race exotics tremendously, even if you catch a couple of favorites early on. And to make it formal, our official picks:
1. Papa Clem
3. Take the Points
4. Rachel Alexandra
Good luck to all and enjoy the race!