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.

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