Friday, May 15, 2009

What Would Damon Runyon Do?

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, May 14, 2009--As legendary sportswriter Damon Runyon once advised: "The race does not always go to the swift nor the battle to the strong, but that's the way to bet."

That quoted, the starkest difference between seasoned handicappers and passionate thoroughbred racing fans comes down to this: The best horse isn’t always the best bet.

There’s ample evidence that sensational filly Rachel Alexandra is the “best horse” in the Preakness 134 field. And you need not trust any handicapper’s opinion on that; just read the comments of any horseman who’s not so eagerly lining up against the filly on Saturday.

Of course, contradictions such as the above is what makes the handicapping of horse races such an engaging and challenging exercise. Or referencing the George C. Scott line in the movie “Patton”: “God help me but I do love it so."

Here, then, the remaining handicapping profiles of Saturday’s Preakness Stakes, listed in post position order:

7-PAPA CLEM: Much improved since moving from synthetics to dirt three starts back, he was beaten seven lengths by Friesan Fire, who had freaked in the Louisiana Derby slop, and by the same margin when Mine That Bird freaked in a sloppy Kentucky Derby. In between came a gutsy win in the Arkansas Derby and, if not for being jostled about in the Derby’s rough-house stretch run he, would have finished second. Kept limber with a very slow breeze over a deep and holding Pimlico surface early in the week, he acts on any type of going and Rafael Bejarano figures to use this colt’s versatility to best advantage should that need arise on Pimlico’s quirky configuration. Maintaining his performance level might be problematical, however.

8-GENERAL QUARTERS: Not only did he suffer through a terrible trip as he was buffeted about by rivals in the Kentucky Derby, he also was forced to check on two separate occasions. This is a long striding colt with gears and can win from near the early pace or from behind, but despite his versatility he never appeared comfortable in the off going. Consequently, he’s yet another Derby runner whose effort can be dismissed as an aberration. He’s obviously a lot better horse than he showed in Louisville and in Julien Leparoux has a race-riding star in the boot. Has enough foundation to run strongly here, even though an in-the-money effort seems far more likely than a victory.

9-PIONEEROF THE NILE: Remains the most accomplished of the Preakness horses by virtue of two Grade 1 victories, a G1 Kentucky Derby placing, and two victories at the G2 level this season. Not only did he demonstrate an ability to handle something other than a synthetic surface at Churchill Downs but showed that he’s as gritty as ever, winning a rough n’ tumble place battle over two contentious rivals after racing out in the center of the track much of the Derby’s 10 furlongs, not the fastest part of the Louisville surface May 2. Continues to please trainer Bob Baffert with his Triple Crown preparation and comes into the Preakness off a small forward move in the Derby and a New Pace Top, a harbinger of yet another improved effort.

10-FLYING PRIVATE: Don’t be shocked if this colt shows a much improved performance in the Preakness. It wouldn’t be the first time that trainer D. Wayne Lukas prepped a horse in a marquee event for a subsequent spot. The Preakness is the middle jewel of the Triple Crown but it’s not the Derby, and this runner needed to get his feet held to the fire. Already beaten by double-digit lengths in the slop at 2, he caught that surface again after drawing post 19 on the inside-favoring Derby track. Prior to that wide non-effort came two good-figure performances in the Lanes End and Arkansas Derby. Lukas has won the Preakness five times and taps Alan Garcia here. At a huge price, he’s a Super High 5/Superfecta inclusion.

11-TAKE THE POINTS: Taking points is never a bad idea since it gives bettors two ways to win. Reserving him from the Derby in favor of a Preakness run was a prudent decision but it might not help when he lines up against some crusty Preakness 134 rivals. This colt’s development is admirable. With the exception of the slightest regression in the Sham Stakes when he chased The Pamplemousse from a wide path throughout, he’s not taken a backward step in six career starts, and his improvement has been beneficially incremental. His connections were concerned about short recovery time heading into the Santa Anita Derby, so today’s six-week spacing should have his batteries fully charged. Probably a notch below, but a nice colt nonetheless. Money prospects.

12-TONE IT DOWN: I love it when modest local owners have a horse worthy enough to compete in a historical classic and the Preakness seems to attract at least one every year. Remember longshots Icabad Crane, Magic Weisner? But I’m afraid that I prefer my Maryland horses to have won or made a winning-type performance in Pimlico’s traditional Preakness prep, the Federico Tesio. Tone It Down set a moderate pace and tired to finish third behind Miners Escapade, who’s skipped the Triple Crown’s middle jewel. Rather than try matching strides early with the likes of Big Drama and Rachel Alexandra, the connections have decided he try off the pace tactics today. In either case, his performance figures are too slow.

13-RACHEL ALEXANDRA: From an Equiform figures’ perspective, the 79½ final figure she earned winning the Kentucky Oaks without urging was the same figure earned by the Derby winner the following day. But unlike Mine That Bird, Rachel’s figure represented an incremental move forward--not the big leap taken by the Derby winner-- making her less likely to regress. She receives a *five-pound weight concession from the colts at today’s mile and three-sixteenths journey which projects her to be, by definition, the “fastest horse” in the race. However, it is unknown how she will handle much, much tougher rivals from a class, final-figure and pace-figure perspective. A talent edge is the great equalizer but is no guarantor of success. No horse has won the Preakness from post 13 and fillies are 4-for-52, none in 85 years. This is what academicians call an epistemological dichotomy. I call it a use-her and lose-her proposition.

Tomorrow: Final selections and constructing a winning exotics strategy.

*corrected weight

Written by John Pricci

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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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