Thursday, May 14, 2009

Will 13 Prove Lucky for Rachel’s Rivals?

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, May 13, 2009--Post 13? Not to worry. If Big Brown could win last year’s Kentucky Derby from post position 20, why can’t Rachel Alexandra win Preakness 134 from the far outside, too?

If owner Jess Jackson were a trainer, he might have said “that’s exactly what we wanted.” But he’s the owner and that’s what he wanted everyone to know when he spoke at Wednesday’s hastily convened national media teleconference.

“Steve [trainer Asmussen] and I are extremely pleased with post 13. She’s on the outside and can stay out of trouble. This will give her a fair chance.”

It will, indeed, but there won’t be any bo-railing this time, which would have been unlikely even if she were to start from the pole position, from which speedy Big Drama will break just inside of the Kentucky Derby winner, Mine That Bird.

Jackson wasted little time defending his position to run back against males two weeks after her 20-¼ length demolishing of the Kentucky Oaks field. “This is not about male and female,” he said, before addressing the elephant on the other end of the trunk line.

“It’s about competition and the ability of the best horse to race around two turns, not break down, and put the industry back in the spotlight.”

As for awaiting the Belmont three weeks later, Jackson said “if you look at the way she devastated her field, she showed she had the skill and not burn herself out. They had to send an outrider almost completely up the backstretch to capture her.”

And so Jackson--who made a business decision to acquire the future broodmare now rather than wait for what promised to be an extraordinary season against her own kind--helped set the stage for one of the most intriguing confrontations in Triple Crown history.

Today, a look at the first six horses in the Preakness starting gate. Friday it will be the remainder of the field which includes the filly then, after midnight Preakness morning, selections and suggestions on how to best construct a Preakness play.

After two weeks of waiting, it‘s Game On. Again.

Preakness 134, in post position order:

1-BIG DRAMA: Rivals who confuse this horse with a one-dimensional speed type prone to cracking under pace pressure and coming back to the field just might see his hindquarters getting smaller and smaller as the finish post approaches. He’s unofficially won six of seven, the only two graded stakes he’s been in, and is 2-for-2 rounding two turns. He runs well fresh, is fast but tractable, and doesn’t need the lead to win. He’s actually more comfortable in a stalking role. Loses Eibar Coa to Musket Man but attracts Johnny Velazquez, a more than able substitute, especially with a quality pace. David Fawkes doesn’t have the national reputation of his rivals but recall his excellent with multiple Grade 1 winner Take D’ Tour. His last performance figure, albeit at seven furlongs, is the equal of the Derby and Oaks winners.

2-MINE THAT BIRD: Beyond his connections, no one will believe in the colt until he somehow can duplicate his Derby effort. It needn’t be another tour de force, just a win. If the Derby proved anything it’s that he has the ability to be among the best in show and that his victory might not have been as impossible as originally perceived. He showed much improved early speed in the Sunland Derby--which also produced the Lone Star Derby winner last Saturday--he also was dropping down to sea level from 3,500 feet and really wants to be taken back and make one run. And what a run it was. He’s a tough, gutsy, experienced throwback of a racehorse that handled adverse conditions while many of his hot-housed rivals wimped out. Seems to have retained his energy with an accidental half-mile breeze. In losing Borel and picking up Mike Smith, he goes from the rail to the 7-path, unless the Hall of Famer thinks he has something more to prove.

3-MUSKET MAN: Talented, supremely honest racehorse who’s been outrunning his breeding limitations throughout his career. Has managed to compile a 5-for-7 lifetime mark including two graded stakes and a Derby third, in which he rallied very wide on an inside track, finishing with good energy. Fast or wet, short or long, near the pace or farther back, this distance runner with a sprinter’s pedigree never has failed to fire. His performance figures are very good but not quite top echelon. But he’s got heart and loves his job. Eibar Coa rides him with lots of confidence and trainer Derek Ryan has pushed the correct buttons thus far. Very sharp work Tuesday at his Monmouth Park base.

4-LOV GUV: No relation to Client Nine but was an authoritative winner on the Kentucky Derby undercard. He’s the lesser regarded of the D. Wayne Lukas lightly esteemed uncoupled entry but the Hall of Famer knows something about winning this race, having done so five times. Further, owner Mary Lou Whitney is no less sporting than Jess Jackson, and indeed would have withdrawn this entrant had the colt prevented Rachel Alexandra from being entered. But he’s coming back quickly of a career best effort. And that victory was his first in 10 career starts. Horses with worse credentials have run in the Preakness. However, what’s the point of this exercise, exactly?

5-FRIESAN FIRE: A winner of four of eight starts lifetime, this quality colt never had a chance to show his ability in the Derby after being completely eliminated by a horrendous start and a rough trip thereafter, suffering nicks and scrapes in the process. Elements and racing luck notwithstanding, his was a tall order not having run in seven weeks nor having raced beyond a mile and a sixteenth. But for this race he’ll be tighter, tougher and more experienced. The smaller field should help as he’s most comfortable stalking from close range. The tandem of Larry Jones, Gabriel Saez and a talented runner cannot be taken lightly. In fact, Tuesday’s sharp work suggests a rebound to his winning Louisiana form.

6-TERRAIN: Never met his trainer but have admired Al Stall Jr.’s work for some time. The races Stall chooses to enter are generally well spaced and the horses equally well prepared. Indeed, “Little Al” has proven adept at pointing to spots and doesn’t fire many blanks when his horses fit the conditions. Thus far, however, this colt hasn’t developed the way he should from 2 to 3 and thus has been somewhat of disappointment. But the trainer must think there’s a big one lurking inside the gelding somewhere. Even if that day were today, he’s unlikely to find a spot on any tier of my exotic wagers. Stall’s a profitable 24 percent with third off a layoff starters and in three career starts at the G1 level, Terrain’s been beaten a total of 10-¾ lengths. Needs an extreme pace meltdown.

Tomorrow: How Does Rachel Stack Up?

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, May 09, 2009

Open Letter to Jess Jackson, Don’t Do It!


Dear Mr. Jackson,

Congratulations on the purchase that you and Mr. McCormack made to acquire Oaks heroine Rachel Alexandra. I’m sure you paid a premium for her and I must admit I was enjoying the Hal Wiggins story immensely.

But given current economic conditions, it would have been irresponsible for the filly’s original owners, and their long relationship with Mr. Wiggins, not to accept your offer.

Perhaps now they might consider tithing their social security checks back to Uncle Sam, who could use a little stimulus of his own.

As you know, I’ve been a fan of yours since a) you spoke truth to power at the Congressional hearings last June, b) were sporting enough to try Curlin on the grass and c) took a shot at the Pro Ride with potentially more to lose than gain.

Or d), for that wonderful bottle of Merlot reserve you sent along from your vineyards at Christmas time. (You had my Eclipse vote at hello).

So it is with the best of intentions that I advise you not to do it. Running in the Preakness would be a mistake. The race you want to run in is the Belmont, especially if Mine That Bird happens to win the Preakness, too.

Besides, what could be better than foiling a Triple Crown bid? And everyone knows about your respect for the game and its history.

But I have pragmatic reasons that have nothing to do with whether or not Rachel Alexandra is America’s best three-year-old.

I wrote a piece on this site before the Oaks saying that Rachel was reminiscent of Ruffian, in terms of domination. So it’s not my lack of confidence in her to win.

(And, if you recall, I encouraged Zenyatta’s connections to run against you in the Classic. So it‘s not as if I have a filly vs. colts taboo thing, either).

But meeting seasoned males in a limit field in Baltimore is dicey--especially coming in off two weeks rest.

Secondly, your filly would be coming in off soft wins. She’s been so dominant this year that she’s never had to answer any questions. If you’re going to try males, which is tough as it is, why not under optimal conditions?

There are plenty of big stages left in this racing season.

Ask Mr. Asmussen this question: What race do you think her galloping-speed style would be suited to given that style?

It’s the dynamics of the Preakness race shape on short rest vs. the wide expanse of Belmont Park where she could, if good enough, gallop the boys silly at a sensible pace.

To me, the choice seems obvious unless, of course, you know something about Jerry Bailey coming out of retirement for a reprise his Eddington role in the 2004 Belmont Stakes.

Getting back to your sense of history, consider: What if Calvin--to whom you promised all future rides--were to win the Preakness on his Derby mount with you on the sidelines, then foregoes a chance at a Triple Crown sweep to beat Mine That Bird with a filly and win his own personal Crown?

Wouldn’t that be the Mother of All Triple Crown storylines? And don’t let anyone convince you that I’m a complete idiot here. Just consider it for yourself, talk it over with your trainer and make the right choice. I know stories regarding her participation in a Triple Crown race thus far have been conflicting, so I'm taking no chances.

Besides, if you wanted to make an immediate statement, why not the Met Mile, where Rachel would get tons of weight because she’s a filly and a three-year-old?

And the Metropolitan Handicap gives you another two weeks.

Just received the Preakness Equiform figures from Cary Fotias who picked out the Belmont for Rachel on Derby eve. Turns out the filly earned the identical figure for the Oaks that Mine That Bird earned in the Derby. And you get a weight concession; edge to you.

Big Drama ran a super race and earned an excellent figure finishing first in the Swale, virtually the same figure as the Oaks and Derby. He’s fresh and was a two-turn winner as a two-year-old. He’s got demon speed. Why go looking for trouble at this stage?

If she were mine, I don’t believe that running in the Preakness would be in her best interests. It’s just too much, too soon. You won over a lot of fans last year with Curlin. But they don’t like this move (check out the comments of fans beneath Bill Christine’s Thursday blog).

A final thought: When I first started out in the business at Newsday in 1977, I was a big fan of Seattle Slew. The first column I wrote a week before the Derby predicted that he would win the Triple Crown.

I know, that was sophomoric, but when you’re young you know it all. Anyway, I became friendly with Billy Turner and do you know what he told me in the winter of 1977 when he and Slew wintered at Hialeah Park?

He said that for Slew, the Belmont would be “the easiest of the three.” Turned out he was right in every way.

Now, if Quality Road makes it back in time for the Belmont, given his style and class, I’d pass the Belmont, too, and run in the Acorn the same day. Then, instead of the Alabama, set your sights on the Travers.

I’m just sayin’, Mr. Jackson.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, May 01, 2009

Kentucky Derby 135: Beware Sloppy Handicapping

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, April 30, 2009--Looks like it might rain on all those Derby hats. Oaks hats, anyway.

Which leaves all horseplayers in a quandary. What’s a handicapper to do?

I learned a long time ago that, when making an analysis well before post time, it’s a mistake to “handicap for a wet track.”

If wet track pedigree is there? Great, have at it. If wet track form is there? Add gusto.

With 52 hours to post time, as this is written, we refuse to be psyched out by conditions which are not knowable until it's time for what jockeys refer to as that song.

I covered 14 renewals of the Kentucky Derby while at Newsday and can tell you that on two occasions--maybe one was a Breeders’ Cup, come to think of it--I've seen a sloppy track turn fast in a matter of hours, especially in the spring.

Track superintendent Butch Lehr is legendary and the Churchill surface is rapidly-drying. All the weather maps I’ve seen show an obscured half-sun for Saturday afternoon.

Perhaps, the derby gods will be kind. And we will not construct our tickets until the last possible moment which, for HRI readers, will be posted at 1:05 AM on Derby day.

Here, then, a look at the remaining members of Derby 135, listed in post position order with early line odds in parentheses:

11-CHOCOLATE CANDY (20-1): Loves the game, as his winning record attests, and his trainer, Jerry Hollendorfer, should already be in the Hall of Fame. Of course, this colt has never seen dirt. The good news is that if handicappers must guess how his form will translate from the synthetics, winning bettors would be well compensated compared to, say, high profile conqueror Pioneerof The Nile. Suffered through very difficult trip when second in Santa Anita Derby, and probably was a short horse, too. Expect him to be at tops, indicating a superfecta finish is possible, and at generous odds.

12-GENERAL QUARTERS (20-1): Gray Cinderella colt is versatile, showing a liking for Tampa Bay, Churchill, and even Keeneland’s Polytrack, winning on the early pace or stalking just off it. The negative is that he’s a bit in-and-out, and this looks like an out spot. Hasn’t been breaking stopwatches since returning to his Churchill base and loses Eibar Coa to Musket Man. Not yet an elite three-year-old, his running style places him in a vice between the speed and the ralliers.

13-I WANT REVENGE (3-1): Turns out he’s a wonderful dirt horse. Classy, brave and athletic, no Derby-135 entrant has a better rapport with his rider than this colt has with the young, talented, cocky wise-beyond-years Joe Talamo. Between Animal Planet, his cucumber-cool Wood Memorial, and avoiding an Alysheba-like calamity to win a So Cal event last week, the racing gods just might be conspiring here. Churchill gallops indicate there might be more where that Gotham and Wood came from. Deserving favorite.

14-ATOMIC RAIN (50-1): Never lived up to the early season promise he demonstrated at Gulfstream Park. He’s never been a serious threat anytime he faced accomplished three-year-old competition, and got into the race due to all the last-minute defections. Had a Monmouth Park blowout before boarding a van for the 13-hour ride to Louisville, where he and partner Joe Bravo at best figure to get hot and dirty.

15-DUNKIRK (4-1): Apollo, 1882, and that’s a whole lot of history. Historical trends have been falling by the wayside recently but there’s a good reason why this one has lasted. But this colt cannot be eliminated on those grounds. True, he’s done a lot of developing in a short time. But his performance figures have increased with distance and experience. Todd Pletcher said that the long, lean individual is typical of the better Unbridled’s Songs, and has put on weight since the Florida Derby. Five weeks should be enough to refill the tank. Major player.

16-PIONEEROF THE NILE (4-1): Undefeated for newly elected Hall of Famer Bob Baffert but, as everyone knows, 0-for-0 on dirt. The Pro Ride horses have been running well on dirt all spring and observers have been impressed with how comfortable this colt is on the Churchill surface. But how he handles it Saturday is a complete guess. His high cruising speed suits the anticipated race shape and he wants to compete and to beat you. My guess is that he’ll transition to dirt. Now he needs to prove it. Value at 6-1 plus.

17-SUMMER BIRD (50-1): An interesting newcomer with less seasoning than Dunkirk, also making career start number four. This guy debuted even later, following his Mar. 1 sprint debut loss with a good win going long, then was a slow-start, wide-rally, strong-finish third in the Arkansas Derby. Even a money finish would be too much to expect but the race could provide an excellent educational foundation. Belmont, maybe?

18-NOWHERE TO HIDE (50-1): If a Kentucky Derby was held without Nick Zito, would the sky fall? Might never get an answer to that question. This is a nice colt who at present is not ready for something like this. But apparently the owners of My Meadowbrook Farm have dreamt about running in the Derby and will get their wish Saturday afternoon. Shaun Bridgmohan gets the last-minute assignment.

19-DESERT PARTY (15-1): The perceived stronger half of the Dubai pair was compromised by a moderate pace and a quality loose stablemate which kept him from sweeping the Dubai triple crown. A graded stakes win as a Saratoga juvenile speaks to his class and foundation and both Dubai runners appear to be thriving at the Downs. Owns enough pedigree and positional speed for the trip and is partnered with future Hall of Famer Ramon Dominguez. Wide draw hurts.

20-FLYING PRIVATE (50-1): Since stretching back out as a three-year-old, Fusaichi Pegasus colt has come to hand for four-time Derby winner D. Wayne Lukas. Following a good second in the Lane’s End, he suffered through a difficult Arkansas Derby trip. Finished well in his final Derby work at Churchill with a good gallop-out beneath new rider Robby Albarado. The post is a killer and he’s in deep water with these.

Tomorrow: Predictions and How to Wager on Derby 135

Written by John Pricci

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