Thursday, May 15, 2014

2014 Preakness Preview

Art Sherman, trainer of California Chrome
Unsurprisingly, we're not perfect.  California Chrome ran better in the Derby than we thought he would, but our biggest mistake was how we thought the race would unfold.  We thought there would be a blistering pace that would kill off his chances along with most of the other speed horses.  That didn't happen.  The 47-second half mile was the perfect setup for California Chrome: it kept him just off of leaders that had no real shot, out of traffic trouble, and in perfect position to pounce when he reached the far turn.

And did he ever pounce.  His move on the turn to the eighth pole clearly established that he was the best horse on May 3rd; his 5-length lead was diminished mostly because he wasn't ridden out hard to the finish line.  Had Victor Espinoza tried, we have no doubt he could have run half a second faster.  It just wasn't necessary - all the contenders were foiled by the lack of pace and/or horrendous traffic trouble.

So does that make California Chrome this year's Big Brown, or this year's Orb?  Let's take a look at the eclectic field for Saturday's Preakness and count them down from 10 to 1.  As always, we're assuming the track is fast and relatively fair.

What. The. Fuck.

10.  Ria Antonia.  There is questionable management of horses, there is poor management of horses, and then there is the management of Ria Antonia.  Let's take a look at what the connections of this poor filly have done to date:
  • July 2013 - The horse starts her careerin the barn of Ricky Griffith, a low-profile trainer who learned the craft under the tutelage the excellent Mark Casse.  She breaks her maiden in her second start and runs an indifferent 4th in her third start on polytrack.
  • October 2013 - Seemingly displeased with Griffith, the owner moves Ria Antonia to the barn of Jeremiah Englehart, who's not bad, and does his work on the East Coast.  She runs an indifferent 5th in the Frizette, Belmont's prep for the Breeders Cup Juvenile Fillies.
  • November 2013 - Despite having nothing in her past performances that indicates she's any good, Ria Antonia is shipped to California for the Breeders Cup Juvenile Fillies.  Shockingly, she runs a huge race at 32-1, and crosses the line second to She's a Tiger, but is placed up to first when the stewards DQ She's a Tiger for interference.  It's the biggest win of Englehart's career, and evidence that he did a bang-up job with the horse in a short period of time.
  • February 2014 - Ria Antonia  meets buzzsaw and eventual Kentucky Oaks winner Untapable in her next race, who wins by nearly 10 lengths.  In a great case of what-have-you-done-for-me-lately, her fourth place finish causes the owner to fire Englehart and replace him with super-trainer Bob Baffert.
  • April 2014 - Baffert runs her in the Santa Anita Oaks, where she runs a decent second to Fashion Plate.  It's pretty clear that this horse likes Santa Anita's course; she's run two fabulous races there and so-so everywhere else.  But the Kentucky Oaks beckons, so Baffert ships her east.
  • Early May 2014 - In the Kentucky Oaks, she's never a factor and runs an indifferent 6th.  She's now made 8 career starts  at 5 tracks under three trainers and has still never broken a 90 speed figure.
  • Mid-May 2014: Seemingly displeased with one of the 5 best trainers on earth, Baffert is canned and the venerable Tom Amoss becomes her fourth trainer in 8 months.  The reason: the owner wants to take on the boys in the Preakness.
So we have a horse in the Preakness who has only won twice, once by a DQ, and has some clear preferences, none of which are satisfied by running in the Preakness, which is not run in California, is not against the ladies, is two weeks after her last start, and contains horses that are worlds faster than her.  It's an utterly insane move that makes no sense.  Let's hope that she takes a lot of dumb money and doesn't get injured on Saturday.  She could have a useful career on the West Coast if they would just leave her alone.

At Least Their Owners Get Free Tickets

9.  Pablo Del Monte.  In his last start resembling a dirt route, he showed early speed and faded miserably in the final furlongs.  Sadly, that was at a mile.  If there's an indication that he's going to enjoy the extra 330 yards the Preakness have to offer, it has eluded us.

8.  Ring Weekend.  The pride of the Florida minor league circuit, he won the Tampa Bay Derby in a minor upset and was crushed in the Calder Derby in his last.  There's a touch of interesting breeding that could keep you interested, but there doesn't seem to be much in the way of actual quickness, which seems to matter these days.

7.  Kid Cruz.  He's the local hope, having won both the Private Terms and Federico Tesio stakes in Maryland.  Of course, in his prior start, he lost a January race at the inner track at Aqueduct, which is never a good sign.  Magic Weisner was the last Maryland horse to invade the trifecta on Preakness Day 12 years ago; we think Kid Cruz makes it 13 years and counting.

A Chance, But Less Than You Think

6.  Bayern.  After a good maiden win, everyone was gaga for this horse when he won an allowance race at Santa Anita by 16 lengths in February.  He hasn't matched that effort since, in part because the quality of the opposition has gotten tougher.  After developing a minor injury, he ran an unimpressive third in the Arkansas Derby, setting the pace and fading in the stretch.  Since it seemed doubtful that he would qualify for the Derby, he ran in the Derby Trial - held a week prior to the big race - where he blazed the way and crossed the line first but was DQ'd to second when he bore out and interfered with the second place finisher.  He has the look of a speed freak that will be dangerous up to 6 furlongs, interesting at up to a mile, and merely a pace factor at a longer race.

5.  Ride on Curlin.  It's a little unusual to hear a jockey get excoriated for doing exactly what he was hired to do.  This relative outsider was manned by Calvin Borel in the Derby (his third jockey in as many races).  One would think that the instructions would be to take the horse to the inside, save ground, and ride the rail to the finish.  I mean, it's Calvin Borel.  He's known as Bo-Rail for a reason.  He won the Derby three times doing exactly that.

And he rode Ride on Curlin just that way in the Derby, shooting him over the to fence right after the break, saving ground, encountering some traffic trouble that made him go wide, and passing tiring horses in the stretch.  That got him 7th place.  The owner was displeased - he wanted Borel to move to the rail at some point before the first turn but not in the first 200 yards.  He's convinced that this cost them the entire race, even though his horse has never won a graded stakes race and would have needed wings to catch California Chrome.  While he's still eligible to hit the board by once again clunking up past tiring horses, we see no reason that Joel Rosario will coax a win out of him.  And Joel - don't plan on riding this horse again, even if you do exactly what you're supposed to do.

4.  Social Inclusion.  Of the new shooters, this one is likely to take the most money at the windows, and he'll probably be the 2nd choice come post time.  He's clearly talented, as his second career race was against early Derby favorite Honor Code, and he absolutely blew him out of the water.  That race was good enough for a 110 speed figure, the highest that any three year old this year, including Calfornia Chrome.

Off that race he was shipped to Aqueduct for the Wood Memorial, where he was made the 8-5 favorite.  He broke well, went right to the front, set moderate/solid fractions (23:3, 47:2) and was clear at the top of the stretch...and was caught.  Not only was he caught by Wicked Strong, the winner of the Wood, but he was caught by Samraat, who sat just off the pace.  The problem is that while we like Samraat, we think he's established himself as solid horse that's a cut below the elite with distance limitations.  And the fact that Social Inclusion was caught by him is what disturbs us for Saturday.  We don't think Social Inclusion will rate, and doubt he can wire the field.  When better horses than Samraat come to challenge him, we think he wilts.


3.  General a Rod.  We are well aware that we picked this guy 20th of 20th in our Kentucky Derby rankings and that he showed very little at Churchill.  But he's precisely the kind of horse that frequently outruns his odds in the Preakness - he ran multiple good races before the Derby, his Derby was a complete toss-out (his was, he never had a chance to do any real running), and importantly, he has good tactical speed.  The closers that were screwed at Churchill usually fair no better at the Preakness.  But there's a history of horses that actually can sit on or near the lead rebounding at Pimlico.  Oxbow, Lookin at Lucky, Shackleford and Louis Quatorze are the obvious examples because they won, but think also of AP Valentine (2nd in 2001 at 10-1), Sweetnorthernsaint (2nd in 2006 at 9-1), and the horse we think General a Rod most resembles, Jackson Bend (3rd in 2010 at 11-1).

We call it unlikely that this horse is wearing a garland of Black Eyed Susans at 7:00 p.m. on Saturday.  But his odds of winning are better than his morning line odds, and his odds of finishing in the money are a lot better than those we've already discussed.  Don't toss him from your exotic wagers.

2.  California Chrome.  We swear, we're not being contrarian for the sake of being contrarian.  We admit that he's a really nice horse, ran well in the Derby and has had an excellent year so far.  We were against Smarty Jones in the 2004 Preakness; he won by a dozen lengths.  So we acknowledge that we may look crazy come Saturday evening if this guy improves on the Derby and just decimates the field.

But there's enough to be concerned about that we're leaning against him, especially at 3-5.  First, his Derby was a perfect ride and trip that basically can't be improved on.  And yet, he still ran a pitifully slow time and couldn't crack 100 on the Gowanus scale.  Sure, he wasn't pushed in the final yards, but he still was remarkably slow in the Derby.  Even though everything went his way.  We're concerned that if he doesn't sit a perfect trip again, he'll regress, which puts a host of others into contention.

Second, the two-week turnaround gives us pause.  Now we generally are pro horses making a quick return to the track.  But trainer Art Sherman isn't pleased with it, saying that he'd like to give the horse closer to seven weeks off.  On top of this fairly thorough schedule to date, we wonder if the rigors of the year will catch up to him in Baltimore, much like they did to Orb last year.

Look, we wouldn't be surprised to see him win easily.  And we don't think he'll finish out of the money.  But we think he'll get passed late by... 

The Pick

1.  Dynamic Impact. ...the winner of the Illinois Derby who skipped the Kentucky Derby, in part because the Illinois Derby doesn't count towards qualifying for the Kentucky Derby.  (Don't ask why.)  There's plenty to like here.  He took 5 starts to break his maiden but did so impressively.  The fact it took him 5 starts doesn't bother us since his lineage - by Tiznow, out of a Smart Strike mare, indicates a runner who will love distance but may take a few starts to get going.  The distance will not be an issue.  The rail draw is a nice bonus.  He has tactical speed that should put him in the second flight of horses, right behind California Chrome.

Most importantly, he has the highest last out speed figure.  Now we know that speed figures aren't gospel and are as much art as science.  But it's a tried-and-true rule that the horse with the highest out speed figure is the most likely winner, and simply playing that horse in every race will yield a minor loss after the takeout.  The reason is that the horse with the highest figure is usually the favorite.  But Dynamic Impact is 12-1 on the morning line, which we think is accurate, and may be higher depending on how much action Social Inclusion and Bayern take.  We'll side with the horse on the upswing with an underrated trainer (Mark Casse, great in Canada, mostly unknown in the States), excellent breeding, and has been working out well, and he's our pick to pull off the upset.

How to Play the Race

Dynamic Impact to win should net a nice return, and we like hedging by boxing him with California Chrome and General a Rod.  We'd also suggest looking at doubles with the Dixie, but are loathe to make any picks in that race, where we haven't cashed since Ops Smile's win in 1997.

Good luck to all and enjoy the Preakness!


Brien said...

Always love the horse racing previews, thanks for the great read!

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