Friday, May 19, 2017

2017 Preakness Preview

Sometimes there's a narrative coming out of the Derby how either the winner was an inspiring tale, or how the best horse didn't win the race for X, Y and Z reason.  We have neither of those this year.  Always Dreaming was an emphatic winner of the Derby, and to steal a good friend's line, was "much the best."  Sure, a few of the also-rans behind him didn't fare so well, but it's hard to argue that a bad trip kept them from winning.  Always Dreaming was well clear of his second place finisher, and the 3rd place finisher was losing ground at the end.  It was a very nice performance.

But can he repeat?  Let's take a look at this year's Preakness field which, charitably, can be called top-heavy.  We'll assume the track is fast and fair again.

We're Not Interested

10.  Term of Art.  (Morning Line: 30-1; Fair Value: 100-1)  Well, he outran his odds in the Breeders Cup Juvenile last year, when he was 90-1 and actually beat two horses in the field.  The only reason to back him is because he's adding blinkers and gets a new jockey.  A few will see that as a chance.  We see it as change for the sake of change.

9.  Senior Investment. (ML; 30-1; FV: 50-1)  Trainer Ken McPeek has been known for pulling rabbits out of his hat when it appeared that he had no chance - think of Golden Ticket in the Travers at 35-1, or more importantly, Sarava in the Belmont at 70-1.  That's about the only case for his horse.  By the way, that's now two horses and two dead closers. This is a theme you'll see here: this race is chock full of runners that like to come from well out of it and little in the way of pace.

8.  Multiplier. (ML: 30-1; FV: 50-1)  A slow horse that exits a 3rd-tier race and has crack sprinter breeding written all over him.  Other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?

7.  Conquest Mo Money. (ML: 15-1; FV: 50-1) Some will bet this guy because he finished 2nd in the Arkansas Derby on the heels of running decently at Sunland Park.  We're unimpressed.  His tactical speed means that he'll actually be prominent in this race, but we're of the opinion he's a Grade 3 horse that should be running in the undercard.

The Wrong Derby Horses

6.  Lookin at Lee.  (ML: 10-1; FV: 33-1)  His runner-up finish in the Derby was the perfect confluence of circumstances.  He had a solid pace to run at.  He drew a wet track, which he likes.  He drew the rail, which helped him on a track where the rail was advantageous.  And jockey Corey Lanierie gave him a perfect ride by never leaving the rail.  He rallied stoutly but never threatened the winner, and after all that, still didn't crack a triple digit speed figure.  A perfect candidate to regress.

5.  Gunnevara. (ML: 15-1; FV: 25-1)  It's looking like this guy peaked three races ago and is on the downcycle.  The switch to jockey Mike Smith might rekindle some effort, but what's more likely is he needs some time off to recuperate.

4.  Hence.  (ML: 20-1; FV: 20-1)  We're willing to completely disregard his Derby - bad start, bad trip, was much further back then he probably wanted to be, and had difficulty rallying in the  mud.  We think he may run back to his Sunland Park Derby, which would be fine, just not fine enough to win.  Keep an eye on him in wagering - if he does get near his morning line odds, a saver win bet on him is not the worst idea.

The Lone Longshot

3.  Cloud Computing.  (ML: 12-1; FV: 12-1)  If you're going to go with an outsider, this is the one to focus on.  Well-bred for the distance, this Chad Brown steed broke his maiden impressively at Aqueduct, followed up by a pretty nice 2nd in the Gotham, then a middling 3rd in the Wood Memorial.  Brown didn't bother entering him in the Derby or running him in some other race in between, deciding instead to train up to the Preakness, for which he's been working out splendidly.  And Brown is very good training a horse with this amount of rest.

There are some pretty clear holes here.  He's never won a stakes race, hell, he's never won anything better than a maiden race.  The Wood's form is suspect.  He's never run anywhere besides Ozone Park.  And recently, horses that skip the Derby are generally bad win plays in the Preakness: Red Bullet pulled it off in '00 - and he would have been the 2nd or 3rd choice in the Derby had he run - but other than that, it was only a phenom (Bernardini '06) or a Hall of Famer (Rachel Alexandra '09) who managed to do it.  We've seen nothing thus far to indicate that he's that good.  But he has tactical speed and upside - this is only his 4th start after all.  And it's not odd for a new shooter to finish in the money: while Derby horses have won 17 of the last 20 Preaknesses, a new shooter has finished in the triple 16 of the last 20 races.  He's the one we like to do that on Saturday.

Duh.

2.  Always Dreaming. (ML: 4-5; FV: 8-5)  We've generally been of the opinion that the criticism of Todd Pletcher's Derby record was overhyped.  We're kind of glad he got a 2nd win, because he's a great trainer and shouldn't be punished for doing a little less well on the first Saturday of May than he does the rest of the year.  We're not saying he's going to catch Ben Jones, who has an incredible 6 Derby wins, but Lukas and Baffert's 4 wins are certainly reachable (if Baffert doesn't win another).

But the Preakness...that's another story.  There's a damn good reason Pletcher is 0-for-8 in the Preakness: he usually doesn't bother trying to win it.  Of the 8 times he's run a horse, 5 were longshots who he didn't bother running in the Derby.  None of them were remotely competitive.  So let's look at the 3 who he did bother running in the Preakness after the Derby:

Impeachment ('00): Runs a clunk up 3rd that's almost identical to his clunk up 3rd in the Derby.  Snore.  Mind you, this was Pletcher's best result in this race, and it was at a time when he was still forging a name for himself.

Circular Quay ('07): At the time we noted that the Derby almost seemed like a Preakness prep for this guy.  That theory seems to have been dumb: he did very little in the Preakness, in part because he was an echelon below the two best horses.

Super Saver ('10):  Everyone and their brother will note how badly he ran in the Preakness after winning the Derby - hell, he never won again.  It isn't so much that he lost, it's that he was spent with 2 furlongs to go.  Pletcher never runs his horses back this quickly unless he wants to - he enjoys spacing out starts to give his runners time for a peak effort.

So the question is whether Always Dreaming is going to regress the same way Super Saver did 7 years ago.  Our feeling is yes - we don't love the quick turnaround, and are inherently suspect of a horse that has had 4 straight perfect trips.  Sure, he could be that good, and we wouldn't be surprised with a win.  But we think the better horse is...

The Pick

1.  Classic Empire. (ML: 3-1; FV: 7-5)  The parallels to 2010 continue here, as like Lookin at Lucky, this guy was a champion two-year old, was unlucky in his Derby start, and has had some trip issues in the past.  We like his draw in a more compact field, think that he'll use his tactical speed to make sure that Always Dreaming doesn't get away, and go by him at the top of the stretch.  While we know Pletcher's only here because Always Dreaming has to run, we like the confidence that Casse is showing by running Classic Empire in the Preakness - he has every reason to wait for the Belmont and give his horse the extra three weeks.  But we think he smells blood in the water.  He knows Pletcher isn't best on the quick turnaround, knows his horse is on the improve, and thinks this is the better spot to beat him.  We agree.

How to Bet

We're going to bet a couple of triples, with Cloud Computing in 3rd and the two obvious horses up top, and maybe one or two with Cloud Computing in the second place slot.  This isn't a spot to get cute and go heavy on Term of Art - we think either accept that the top 2 tower over the field and bet accordingly, or enjoy a drink with the race instead.

Good luck to all!!

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