Friday, May 15, 2009

Preakness 2009: Sometimes the Best Man for the Job Is a Woman

By Steve Brady

[Editor’s note: In horse racing, a “Derby” is a race set up specifically for 3-year-old colts, and an “Oaks” is restricted to 3-year-old fillies. Every few years, a particularly gifted filly attempts to “take on the boys” in a Triple Crown event. Fillies are traditionally given a five-pound weight break. Rags to Riches beat Curlin in the Belmont two years ago and Eight Belles finished a creditable second to Big Brown in the Kentucky Derby last year, before her tragic demise galloping out past the finish line. Although she eventually faced male contenders later in her career, and is still considered one of the greatest thoroughbreds of all time, Triple Tiara winner Ruffian was never entered in a Triple Crown event.]

The guy must know something, right? He won the 2007 Kentucky Derby on favorite Street Sense with clear-cut victory. Two weeks ago, he won the Derby again, using the exact same rail-hugging, come-from-behind tactics on a 50-1 longshot. But instead of sticking with Derby winner Mine That Bird in the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico, jockey Calvin Borel has done something unprecedented: He’s opted to jump over to Rachel Alexandra—the filly on which he won the Kentucky Oaks the day before the Derby.

Let’s be clear: “won” is an understatement. The filly went off as a 1-5 favorite, and absolutely decimated the Oaks field by 20 lengths.

Still, despite her consistently high Beyer figures, the humiliating way in which she dispatched the distaff talent in her age group, and the scintillating workouts she has displayed the past several months, Rachel Alexandra (left, cruising at the Oaks with Borel) still makes a slightly precipitous leap upwards in class racing against all-male competitors. And that only gets tougher with each passing month, as the males mature. Add in the introduction of some interesting (and speedy) new faces to the Preakness field, plus her outside post position (#13), and RA (in my opinion) emerges as an underlay worth trying to beat at probable odds of 8-5.

But which of the boys can beat her? Only five of them have even one Beyer figure of 100 or more, much less the four consecutive plus-100 Beyers RA has racked up. As mentioned above, her workouts have been brilliant, and she should be right near the front of a not-too-speedy field at the Baltimore track, which usually favors frontrunners. Though there are not a lot of "rabbits" in this field, Big Drama (Post #1) and Tone It Down (Post #12) have enough early speed to keep the pace honest, and since RA likes to stay on the pace, jockey “Bo-rail” will not be pulling out his late-running, deus ex machina routine in Baltimore. They’ll have to try to dictate things on the lead, and given the way RA's dominated races so far this year, she may just pull it off.

Still, looking at the results charts since the beginning of this meet, Pimlico has been uncharacteristically fair to closers (especially in routes), and there’s a couple of good late runners in this race, including the second- and third-place finishers in the Derby—Pioneerof the Nile and Musket Man.

It may be that Rachel Alexandra needs an inside post like a fish needs a bicycle. Still, at 8-5, I’m gonna try to beat her. Here are the main contenders:

Mine That Bird [Post #2; 6-1 odds; trainer, Bennie Wooley] shocked the world with one of the biggest Derby upsets in history. No one seems to be buying that he’s for real. His jockey took another mount, and the oddsmakers have him as a 6-1 co-third choice. Maybe it was a fluke, but a seven-length win isn’t exactly chump change, and dismissing a Derby winner seems unwise. Hall of Famer Mike Smith picks up the mount. Look for him late.

Pioneerof the Nile [Post #9; 5-1 odds; trainer, Bob Baffert] looked poised to win the Derby before being foiled by Mine That Bird’s late- running heroics. Pioneer had been running as a closer up until the Derby, when he tried more front-running tactics. We may not know his strategy until he and jockey Garrett Gomez leave the starting gate. (BTW, that’s not a typo. Due to space limitations for horse names, they scrunched the first two words together.)

Musket Man [Post #3; 8-1 odds; trainer, Derek Ryan] closed well on Derby Day and lived up to his “wise guy pick” status. If Pimlico remains fair to closers, he’s another who could pick up the pieces in the stretch.

Papa Clem [Post #7; 12-1 odds; trainer, Gary Stute] was right behind Pioneer and Musket Man at the wire on Derby Day. He settled into fourth place at the beginning of the race, and pretty much held his place in line the whole way around. He had a very slow five-furlong workout in Baltimore on May 12, but trainer Stute seemed unfazed, claiming that “working ugly” is part of the grand plan. If the track is speed-favoring, he should be right in the mix again.

Take the Points [Post #11; 30-1 odds; trainer, Todd Pletcher] has been working well on natural dirt since finishing fourth behind Pioneer and Chocolate Candy on the synthetic cushion track at Santa Anita. He looks to improve with the surface switch, and with Edgar Prado up. His best-ever Beyer (99) was on natural dirt with Prado in the irons. He could surprise at a price.

General Quarters [Post #8; 20-1 odds; trainer, Tom McCarthy] was dubbed “America’s horse” because of sentiment for his improbable story. Retired school principal McCarthy is hoping GQ can conjure up his first plus-100 Beyer since Valentine’s Day, and that he can improve on his tenth-place finish in the Derby.

Big Drama [Post #1; 10-1 odds; trainer, David Fawkes] is a latecomer to the Trip Crown. He’s got some early speed, and impressively won five races in a row before being DQ’d and placed second to This One’s for Phil in the G-2 Swale. The 108 Beyer he earned that day is tied with Rachel Alexandra’s as best in the field. The Florida-bred has been working consistently since, and attracts John Velasquez in the saddle. If he breaks well from the rail, and can get the distance, he could lead them all the way around the track.

Friesan Fire [Post #5; 6-1 odds; trainer, Larry Jones] was my pick for the Derby, and I haven’t given up hope on him. He “pulled a quarter” stepping on his own foot coming out of the gate in the Derby, doing the equine equivalent of breaking a nail. Jockey Gabriel Saez simply guided him around the sloppy course once he recognized the race was lost, but FF put in yet another speed drill on May 12, and I don’t think Jones would send him out if the foot was still a problem. I’m looking for redemption on Preakness Saturday.

Luv Guv, Tone It Down, Flying Private and Terrain all look like longshots.

Online Video Resources (cut-and-paste links):

Past performances of Preakness contenders, available for free at

2009 Kentucky Derby won by Mine That Bird:

Rachel Alexandra winning Kentucky Oaks:

Big Drama finishing first (later DQ’d by stewards and placed second):

Steve Brady is Sports Media America's horse-racing columnist. He handicaps races in Southern California and works in Los Angeles as a commercial actor and comedy improviser with Cold Tofu.

Friday, May 01, 2009

The 2009 Kentucky Derby—90% of Life Is Just Showing (Up)

By Steve Brady

Woody Allen once famously said that “90% of life is just showing up.” His words have special meaning on the first Saturday in May. As this year’s Kentucky Derby entrants convene on a track that few of them have ever run on—at a distance none of them has been proven at, against competition few of them have ever faced, in a stampede twice the size any of them has ever found themselves in—it is challenging to pick with any certainty a horse that will come in the money. Much less the winner. Or a likely exacta.

The past couple of years, the racetracks in Southern California (Santa Anita and Hollywood Park) have offered a promotion called, respectively, Show-vivor or Show-Me-The-Money. The idea of both is to pick one horse in one race per day to finish in the money (win, place or show), and see how long you can “show-vive” in the contest. It sounds relatively easy. (Just pick the favorite; the favorite’s gotta at least show, right??) But as anyone who’s been eliminated on Day #1 can attest, it’s tougher than it looks. Even heavy favorites don’t always finish in the money—not even in a five-horse field.

With 20 horses starting in this year’s Derby, even a show payout on an obvious favorite is likely to more than double your investment—and that’s a lot better than pissing it away like I’ve been doing the past few years.

Although it is commonly noted that the favorite has won the Derby the last two years (and three times in the last five), it is also worth noting that, in the past 12 years, the post-time favorites have won only four times. Of those same 12 years, the favorites have come in the money 7 out of 12 times. Certainly no guarantee, but it’s a better than 50% chance of at least doubling your money.

In addition, the single-digit favorites who don’t finish in the money are much more likely to be stuck out beyond Post 9. In the past dozen years, of the 32 post-time, single-digit-odds runners who started in Post 9 or beyond, only eight have even finished in the money. The only glaring exception to this trend was last year’s winner, Big Brown, who, after being marooned at Post 20, bided his time in sixth place, then scooted to the lead at the quarter-mile pole and coasted home to win by almost five lengths. He was an especially talented horse in what was considered a pretty weak field.

Here’s what I’m getting at: The closest thing you get to a sure thing in the Derby is betting a single-digit favorite inside the 10-hole to show. And if he’s got enough speed to stay on the pace, so much the better.

The obvious favorites in this race are:

I Want Revenge 3-1 [morning-line odds] Jeff Mullins [trainer]
IWR exploded once he got off the West Coast synthetics and started running on natural dirt. He put up two consecutive plus-100 Beyers, in two consecutive graded stakes wins. Consider his astounding performance in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. After getting left flat-footed at the gate, he and jockey Joe Talamo patiently chased a relatively slow pace, got boxed in on the rail, and still managed to break away and split foes in the stretch to gain the lead and win by a length and a half. He’s a deserving favorite, but he’s in Post #13. He’s not getting my show money.

Dunkirk 4-1 (Todd Pletcher)
Obviously has immense talent. In his third career race, he went off as the even-money favorite in the Florida Derby. In that race, he finished a nice second to Quality Road—now off the Derby trail with hoof issues—and earned a career-high 108 Beyer. He’s been working very fast, and gets Edgar Prado in the irons. Certainly a tempting win candidate. He’s in Post #15.

Pioneer of the Nile 4-1 (Bob Baffert)
PON has won his last four consecutive graded stakes races. It would be reckless to ignore the fact that he has already beaten Papa Clem and Derby favorite IWR in the Grade 2 Robert Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita. Meanwhile, Eclipse Award winner Garrett Gomez had his choice of mounts, and picked PON over Dunkirk. Still, while PON has done nothing wrong, and keeps on winning, he remains untested on natural dirt, and still hasn’t taken on an especially large field. He also relies on closing tactics. Between the number of late runners in this field, the possibility of traffic problems in a 20-horse field, and a perusal of Churchill Downs results early this meet, it looks like an on-the-pace style will be more successful come Saturday. I don’t think the #16 hole will be as draining on PON as it might be for some others, yet I still don’t like the single-digit, outside-post candidates. I’m gonna keep looking for my surefire show bet.

Friesan Fire 5-1 (Larry Jones)
This is my pick. He’s another horse who just keeps winning and doesn’t seem to get enough respect. I’m pretty confident he’ll come in the money, and that makes him my heavy show bet. He starts from Post #6, and has no intimidating speed to his inside. He can get in a nice spot towards the front, just off the rail, letting Papa Clem, Join in the Dance, Regal Ransom, Atomic Rain and even I Want Revenge battle for position up front. He should be near the pace without burning himself out, or getting hung wide. Meanwhile, he’s been working out beautifully for trainer Jones. Plus, he won the Louisiana Derby on a sloppy track, and rain is predicted for Saturday in Louisville.

Longshots who could surprise:

Regal Ransom 30-1 (Saeed bin Suroor)
The top money-earner ($1,297,000) in the field, RR has worked well over the Churchill track after shipping in from Dubai.

Papa Clem 20-1 (Gary Stute)
Papa Clem has certainly been consistent. He beat IWR in the Lewis Stakes (just behind PON) and won the Arkansas Derby. On Thursday he worked three furlongs in a blistering 34-second bullet at Churchill. I think he’s got a shot.

Musket Man 20-1 (Derek Ryan)
MM could surprise everyone on Derby Day. He’s won five of six races—the other one, he came in third. He’s been working very nicely at Churchill, and he attracts Eibar Coa for the mount. He should be up towards the front for most of the race; we’ll see if he can hang on in the stretch.

General Quarters 20-1 (Tom McCarthy)
GQ is worth a $2 flyer based purely on a warm-'n'-fuzzy play. He’s the one-horse barn of 75-year-old, semi-retired trainer and ex-school principal McCarthy. After getting outbid for GQ in the yearling sales at Keeneland, McCarthy picked him up in a $20,000 claiming race at Churchill Downs a year later. Oh yeah, and he earned a 102 Beyer in a stakes race at Tampa Bay Downs on Valentine’s Day.

Chocolate Candy 20-1 (Jerry Hollendorfer)
CC seems to be the wise-guy pick. He’s continued to improve with each race. Right behind PON and IWR in the CashCall Futurity, he’s another who seems to work well underneath the Twin Spires.

Steve Brady is Sports Media America's horse-racing columnist. He handicaps races in Southern California and works in Los Angeles as a commercial actor and comedy improviser with Cold Tofu.