Countdown to the Crown: May 21, 2009
Editor's Note: Countdown to the Crown returns for its fourth season as one of the most comprehensive handicapper's analyses of the 3-year-old scene. Posted each Friday from Jan. 1 through the Belmont Stakes, Countdown keeps you apprised of the rising stars in the sophomore class from the maiden ranks to the Grade 1 stakes.
3 THINGS YOU WON'T READ ANYWHERE ELSE
Opinions are like finding a jockey for MINE THAT BIRD. Sometimes when you have a good one, it's hard to keep it to yourself. And while we're on the subject: I'm tossing my hat in the ring to ride MINE THAT BIRD in the Belmont. Chip Woolley, if you don't mind legging up a 218-pound apprentice, give me a shout.
1. RACHEL ALEXANDRA's biggest race of the rest of her life comes in a few weeks at Belmont. It's it and that's that. Do you really want to plan months in advance for a showdown with Zenyatta on her home course at the Breeders' Cup, knowing full well that long-term planning seldom cooperates in today's racing landscape and that Zenyatta is a monstrous freakazoid? Whom do you want chasing you down the stretch Zenyatta or MINE THAT BIRD? Case closed. See you in New York, if healthy, young lady.
2. The one jockey who could have said the most about the outcome of Saturday's Preakness ended up doing the least. Young Gabriel Saez had a split-second decision to make after the opening quarter-mile of the Preakness, and he blinked, sucking FRIESAN FIRE back from between horses, and allowing RACHEL ALEXANDRA to engage BIG DRAMA into the clubhouse turn. Had Saez kept 'FIRE in the pace mix, given Johnny Velazquez already was angling BIG DRAMA a few paths off the rail, they could have made the task for 'RACHEL even more monumental. Instead, Saez's soft approach allowed for a remarkably perfect trip for the favorite, who cashed in with a sensational performance to accompany her smooth journey. From his big box seats in heaven, I can envision Woody Stephens shaking his fist in angst.
3. Many numbers stand out from Preakness 134, but none even as closely remarkable as 39.20. That's what the exacta paid, a mind-boggling return for RACHEL ALEXANDRA and MINE THAT BIRD, who won the Oaks and Derby by city blocks. As a public handicapper giving selections 24-48 hours before the race, it's hard to recommend diving into that exacta based on what you think it will pay, $22-$25, but at $39.20, it's one of the great overlays I've seen in some time. Maybe RACHEL ALEXANDRA was worth a stand-against in the win pool at 8-5, like I felt she was, but that means MINE THAT BIRD was 18-1 to beat the rest of this bunch if you accepted the free space on top. That's why you watch the toteboard and will-pays, folks. There's handicapping, and then there's horse-playing.
THIS WEEK'S FEARLESS FORECAST
This section includes a preview of the coming week's 3-year-old races to watch. Saturday's Arlington Classic on turf brings about a grass reunion for GIANT OAK, one of the most sought-after horses on this year's Triple Crown trail. He's back home on the green where he belongs. Meanwhile, Sunday's G3 Laz Barrera Memorial should put a few horses on track for July's G2 Swaps at Hollywood Park. And, on Monday, the tradition-rich G1 Met Mile at Belmont could feature sophomore stars MR. FANTASY and THIS ONE'S FOR PHIL against older horses. But none of those races figure to impact the Belmont Stakes in just over two weeks now, so let's move on to our Preakness review.
EVERYONE'S A CRITIC
This section recaps the week that was, and oh what a week in the Preakness! Top to bottom, here are the lasting impressions to a historic finish at Old Hilltop.
RACHEL ALEXANDRA: Let's remove the emotion and spectacle and just focus on facts. Much has been written about this historic performance and what it means to the big picture. But what transpired on the track to make it happen? After bounding through the stretch the first time completely on her own accord and without Calvin Borel's urgency, RACHEL ALEXANDRA caught a break when none of her inside press-and-pounce rivals decided to force the issue. Stunningly easy second and third quarter-mile splits made the difference as RACHEL was able to relax on the lead while battling only a singular challenger, BIG DRAMA. Compare these second- and third-quarter splits of recent Preakness editions and you'll see what I mean:
The internal half-mile of Saturday's Preakness ran about 3-5 lengths slower than recent years, helping the filly catch a breather and have something left for the drive. Note that while RACHEL's middle half-mile was similar to the 2004 clocking, the track played a full second slower (five lengths) on the undercard stakes sprints in '04 vs. '09, so the route difference would be even more dramatic.
Not to discredit her performance at all, RACHEL ALEXANDRA was able to turn the jets back on when needed, separating herself from BIG DRAMA passing the five-sixteenths pole and avoiding the chance of being hung wider on the final turn than need be. While a subtle point, her acceleration at that juncture was critical as BIG DRAMA already was out in the 2-3 path keeping her wide to some degree and had a history of cornering poorly. Calvin Borel pressed the gas pedal with a strong fourth quarter in :24.81, the fastest such Preakness clocking since 2003. That oomph propelled her past potential ground loss, into a comfortable lead in mid-stretch and allowed her to hold her edge to the wire. She ran only a :19.26 final three-sixteenths of a mile, the slowest for a Preakness winner since front-runner War Emblem crept home in :20.14 in 2002, but it was enough after that fourth-quarter surge.
Getting away from the numbers for a moment, it must be noted that none of the pursuers, including fast-closing MINE THAT BIRD, ever passed RACHEL ALEXANDRA in the gallop-out. But it also has to be noted that the filly's five-pound weight break over 1 3/16 miles certainly could have played a significant role. At 126 pounds vs. 121, it's an interesting conjecture to wonder how much slower that final three-sixteenths might have been. But the weight break continues at Belmont if she's to go on, which only helps her already strong cause. RACHEL ALEXANDRA is expected to work back on Memorial Day Monday, her first stiff training post-Preakness, so we might know more about her Belmont prospects then. But don't expect big things on the clock. The Asmussen barn hands out five-eighths breezes in 1:02s like trick-or-treat candy.
MINE THAT BIRD: Before the race even began, the Derby winner proved to be a wonderfully improving racehorse. He showed outstanding composure in the starting gate while BIG DRAMA acted up badly in the stall directly to his inside. It also was a great observation by announcer Tom Durkin, who took heat for his Derby call, but was his superstar self Saturday. MINE THAT BIRD's Preakness was far more definitive for the racehorse, showing he could come home stoutly against anyone, after any trip, and with any rider on his back employing his much-needed, one-run style.
His Belmont Stakes chances have to be respected now, but price shoppers can forget about the 50-1 from Kentucky or the massive underlay in the Preakness. While his 6-1 win-pool price might have looked about right (name recognition beat him down in the win pool), this horse was completely overlooked in every exotic wagering pool, where the vast majority of sound handicappers' money resides in big races.
Who will or should ride him at Belmont? While I love Calvin Borel and think the world of his skills, I would not wait around to play the agent game with him at this point. Borel's rail-skimming trip helped seal the day in Louisville, but the roadmap was designed by Chip Woolley, and I would be looking to next ink Edgar Prado, a two-time Belmont Stakes winner who timed to a "T" Birdstone's reeling in of front-running Smarty Jones.
MUSKET MAN: Those who follow Eibar Coa closely know he's as tactical as any rider in the game, knowing the competition and riding not only his horse, but against others. Instead of going after RACHEL ALEXANDRA early as I thought a rapid, half-mile Monmouth Park workout had tipped, Coa let other riders take that challenge while securing and gluing himself to the rail in a clear gesture to make MINE THAT BIRD beat him a different way this time. The 'BIRD proved up to that challenge, but MUSKET MAN further stamped himself as a consistent knocker.
Trainer David Fawkes was talking Haskell even before the Preakness, and he'll back up this horse's program to get ready for that race in early August. Expect him to pump more early heat into MUSKET MAN back home, as Monmouth requires you have some early foot.
FLYING PRIVATE: The pre-race Preakness feel was that he needed the speed to come back to him and the closers not to fire, and he got most of that in running fourth Saturday. BIG DRAMA was spent from his tussles, while only MINE THAT BIRD and MUSKET MAN came from the back with any zest. That left this one-paced runner in a good spot, and hats off to him for delivering a much-improved effort from the Derby. He's going to win a race of decent repute somewhere going long, while his style makes him a candidate for a similar placing at Belmont.
BIG DRAMA: From the "whatever can go wrong " department comes his Preakness tale. Vanned in the morning of the race, BIG DRAMA was cast in his stall Preakness morning. Obviously not a happy horse, he reared in the starting gate and then bobbled within the first few strides once finally reloaded and unleashed. The horse did all he could given the scenario, and did not embarrass himself one bit. Kudos to jockey John Velazquez for riding the race with guts and being the only jockey not worried about political correctness vs. RACHEL ALEXANDRA. Johnny V kept 'DRAMA about three paths off rail even down the backstretch. While 'DRAMA weaved all over track tired in the lane, note he was only passed by four horses. There are some good sprinters out there, but he would be pure poison in the 7-furlong King's Bishop this summer. I'd love to see him work toward that goal, and then perhaps stretch back out in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile.
PAPA CLEM: Even when running a dud -- and make no mistake, this was nowhere near a PAPA CLEM kind of effort -- he still split the Preakness field. While it might appear time for a break, he would be awfully tough in the G2 Swaps at Hollywood this summer, and given his toughness, might be strong enough to press on for one more objective before getting a time-out. I get the feeling this will be a name we hear about for a long time in the California stakes ranks, a horse for next year's Strub series for 4-year-olds and beyond.
TERRAIN: The hope from his camp was that the 50-1 Derby win by MINE THAT BIRD was a fluke. After the Derby 1-3 finishers came back to run 2-3 in the Preakness, guess again. TERRAIN did not close with enough gusto, and his plodder's style does not play well in the Belmont Stakes. He could have a very solid campaign in the second-tier stakes for 3-year-olds, but I wouldn't project him as a Travers type. After winning the Mountaineer Juvenile last year, logic says the West Virginia Derby makes perfect sense this summer.
LUV GOV: From maiden-breaker to beating five horses in the Preakness, including the winners of the Blue Grass, Louisiana Derby and Santa Anita Derby, you'd have to say that this effort met or exceeded expectations. Still, it's hard to get wildly excited about a distant eighth-place run, but he certainly has a license to move forward a bit more in the Belmont Stakes. But without much pace help in the Belmont, he could be in a tougher predicament there, even if the field of challengers softens. His best style appears to be to take back and make one good run like MINE THAT BIRD.
GENERAL QUARTERS: The horse everyone wanted to run well for owner/trainer Tom McCarthy could not catch a break in the Derby or Preakness, and now appears to be a horse either in need of a break or some class relief. Sure, he had traffic trouble in both events, but oftentimes repeat traffic offenders find themselves in a pickle on their own accord, lacking the push-button acceleration to get themselves in and out of spots. GENERAL QUARTERS peaked with his Blue Grass performance, where he was kicking the barn down going into that race, and since has failed to rekindle that fire. I would love to see them pick some lower-hanging fruit in races like the Northern Dancer at Churchill or the Iowa-West Virginia Derby-type races. There's a lot of money to be made for a 3-year-old like him, who can get a distance of ground.
FRIESAN FIRE: My thoughts on this horse have been well-documented in recent weeks, and the race position Saturday by jockey Saez noted in the opening of "Countdown." So let's look forward, not backward. Please, please give FRIESAN FIRE a break. This talented, but tired horse has been in steady training since before last summer without a lull to speak of. Read into things as you wish, but my take is that this guy was always the "beer money" horse, the one to pick up some nice checks while Old Fashioned got ready for the classics. Otherwise, you just don't see top-class Triple Crown hopefuls get December allowance preps for the G3 Lecomte in January. But along the way, 'FIRE got good, rattled off the wins at Fair Grounds with improving ease, and suddenly became a "What do we do now?" horse. That timing also coincided with the demise of Old Fashioned, who looked less like a Derby horse every time he stepped on the track this spring. But "resting" seven weeks between the Louisiana Derby and Kentucky Derby does not qualify as quality time off, rather just provided a training pickle for Larry Jones. Don't be shocked to see him in the July 19 Barbaro Stakes back home at Delaware Park with a Haskell or Travers run slated. But I sure hope not.
PIONEEROF THE NILE: The fact remains that Bob Baffert's only Preakness starter to improve his Kentucky Derby finish at the Preakness has been Point Given, but few could have projected the Derby runner-up to run this uncharacteristically badly. Insiders tell me 'NILE was leaned on hard going into the Santa Anita Derby as a key, must-win-impressively race, and that may have begun to take the starch out of him. Pair that scenario with his hard effort in the Kentucky Derby and late-race weariness, and the writing was on the wall in hindsight. Look for Baffert to regroup and try to have this colt back in peak form for a Breeders' Cup Classic run at Santa Anita, his home track, where he's proven to be a tough hombre. The calendar starts in late October and then works backward, with potential races like the Goodwood as a springboard and the Travers as a midsummer destination.
TONE IT DOWN: The local entrant was never a threat at any point Saturday and simply placed ambitiously. But even races of national importance need regional representation, and I applaud local connections when they "go for it" in their track's signature races. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. And no there's shame in losing to these horses.
TAKE THE POINTS: For an insignificant horse in the serious Preakness discussion, I have to admit I'm probably more surprised by the finish of this consistent, hard-trying horse than any other on the board. Jockey Edgar Prado didn't have enough horse from the opening jumps to impact the pace or the trip of RACHEL ALEXANDRA, despite blinkers on. This is a prime example of what happens from a far outside post when you're not brilliant or hard-used early. It truly underscores the effort of RACHEL ALEXANDRA.
DUNKIRK appears to have bounced out of his Kentucky Derby trip in great shape based on his Monday workout at Belmont Park. Under Garrett Gomez, he sizzled a half-mile in :47.24. DUNKIRK will be a handful for all in the final jewel, and rates the best chance to upend the Derby and Preakness winners. If we happen to get a rare rubber match between MINE THAT BIRD and RACHEL ALEXANDRA in the Belmont, keep in mind that the Preakness winner has won 4 of the 5 such matchups at Belmont since 1990, with a new shooter taking the other and leaving Derby winners unable to exact their revenge. Only once since 1996 has a Triple Crown seen three different horses win all three jewels: 2000, when Fusaichi Pegasus, Red Bullet and Commendable passed the trophies like batons.
Jeremy Plonk has been an ESPN.com contributor since 2000. You can email Jeremy about Countdown to the Crown or anything racing-related at Jeremy@Horseplayerpro.com.
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