The Kentucky Derby has passed, and the Preakness Stakes--the second jewel of the hallowed Triple Crown--is Saturday; despite California Chrome delivering as the favorite at Churchill Downs, I still have my doubts about him.
I was dubious about backing him as a solid favorite in Louisville because, on paper, the race was filled with early speed, and for him to get his customary lead, he’d need to fight for it--or, without the lead, he’d need to stalk and pounce, which he hadn’t proven the ability to do. Of course, as sometimes happens, a race that should’ve been cooking with gas up front turned paceless. The languid first half-mile took over 47 seconds, and California Chrome was able to sit in a rocking chair right off the flanks of the early leaders. It was a dream trip, and, being up front, he avoided all the bumper cars behind him.
Wicked Strong ran huge to finish fourth, considering he’s a closer and didn’t get pace, he was marooned in the post farthest outside, and he was cut off in the stretch by Danza and forced to re-rally. To be fair, though, he received a good trip before that trouble in the stretch. Commanding Curve, who will skip the Preakness and await the Belmont, ran valiantly to finish runner-up, since--like Wicked Strong--he was a closer in a dawdling race. Candy Boy was cut off early by Wicked Strong on the first turn and steadied sharply--and his race ended then and there. Medal Count was bumped early by Wildcat Red and was then brutally crushed late by Danza. Perhaps we’ll see this horse return for the Belmont? Danza was roughed up late and early, so finishing third was an achievement for a colt I doubted--although, to be fair, he ladled out some punishment of his own. Honestly, his move into Wicked Strong and Medal Count during the stretch run would’ve gotten him disqualified in pretty much any race other than the Kentucky Derby, where the cliche has long been: “no autopsy, no foul.”
Additionally, there’s the clock to consider. Though California Chrome left his competition floating in his wake like torn scraps of paper, the time doesn’t lie, and his final time was the slowest on a fast track in the Derby since 1974. The picks in my Derby column, which posted online the morning before the race, listed five horses to use--and two of those five comprised the $170 exacta. That’s right, my picks paid off handsomely. Just sayin’.
Now, making money in the Preakness will be a far tougher affair--if California Chrome wins again. The field will be smaller, as will the handle, and he’ll be an even shorter price than in Louisville two weeks ago. Ah, but, if he loses, things would get profitable, and that very well may happen.
This year’s Preakness is chock-full of horses who didn’t run in the Derby; of the 18 runners who opposed California Chrome two weeks ago, only Ride on Curlin and General A Rod (both beaten soundly at Churchill Downs, although Ride On Curlin’s sire, horse of the year Curlin, won the Preakness) will try him again in Baltimore. Since 1980, only twice--2006 and 2008--have three or fewer runners from the Derby competed in the Preakness.
As in the Derby, there’s a lot of front-end speed signed on for the Preakness--hopefully, this time, it actually works out that way. Myriad horses hellbent on the lead would put California Chrome in a pickle. He’s yet to prove, to my satisfaction, that he can win from behind and off the pace, and if he’s forced to duel for the lead with numerous other horses through fast fraction, he could be ripe for a closer.
Bayern, Pablo Del Monte, and Social Inclusion are all, to borrow from Al McGuire, faster than the 11:15 mass at a summer resort. Bayern, trained by the maestro, Bob Baffert (hunting his sixth Preakness triumph), was third in the Arkansas Derby to Danza--who finished third in the KY Derby. Bayern ran in the Derby Trial, a shorter race than the Derby at Churchill the Saturday before the Derby, and was relegated to second from the top spot for some shenanigans in the stretch. Social Inclusion drowned a field at Gulfstream earlier this year which included an early Derby favorite, Honor Code, and he then finished a valiant third after setting a solid pace on the lead in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. Social Inclusion has made only three lifetime starts, so he could improve, and he’s sired by Pioneerof the Nile--who won the Santa Anita Derby and finished second in the Kentucky Derby in 2009--so the pedigree is strong. He also fired a bullet work Monday, so he appears primed. Pablo Del Monte can’t go this far and seems overmatched.
Although he was rated back in the Derby and never threatened from there, General A Rod’s triumphs have come on the front end, and Ring Weekend--trained by the outstanding Graham Motion--had his crowning moment with a wire-to-wire score in the Tampa Bay Derby. In other words, one or both of these horses could also show early turns of foot.
With all that early speed, one would usually look to the closers, but Ride on Curlin never wins and doesn’t appear to want this distance, and neither Kid Cruz nor Dynamic Impact have beaten anyone of note, and both seem a bit cheap.
What a handicapping challenge! I swore I'd be against California Chrome after the Derby, but between the weak field showing up to oppose him in Baltimore, and the pace dynamics of the race, I must grudgingly admit I think he'll win. Use him along with Social Inclusion, who could be a truly special horse and is the speed of the speed, and Bayern, who has Baffert in his corner--and that's enough for me. To round out the exotics, try to get Kid Cruz in the mix; he's a true closer in a race filled with early speed, and he has two wins this year over this very track.
The other curiosity for this Preakness is that a filly will join the colts in the starting gate. Ridden by Calvin Borel, Rio Antonia will try the boys after finishing a well-beaten sixth against her own sex in the Kentucky Oaks the day before the Derby. She was put up to first from second via disqualification in last year’s Breeder’s Cup Juvenile Fillies, but that turned out to be a slow race, and she’s lost her three races as a three-year-old this year. Adding to the intrigue is the fact that the last filly to win the Preakness--the brilliant Rachel Alexandra in 2009--was ridden in that race by, you guessed it, Calvin Borel.
The Preakness is run at a distance of one mile and 3/16, which is 1/16 of a mile shorter than the Derby. Post time is slated for 5:18 CST, and NBC has the TV coverage.