By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman")
We got trouble! Right here at Pimlico! With a capital T and that rhymes with P and that stands for Post Position!
After going over the post positions for the 139th Preakness Stakes (gr. I), I couldn’t resist quoting—in slightly modified fashion—the lyrics to a song from The Music Man. If you’ve never heard the song, then I offer my apologies for digressing. If you are familiar with it, then I hope it made you laugh. :)
Leaving Professor Harold Hill behind, I would like to take a moment to discuss yesterday’s Preakness post position draw, during which Kentucky Derby winner California Chrome was assigned post three. At first glance, I thought it was a pretty decent draw—a bit close to the rail, perhaps, but not too close. All in all, California Chrome seemed to be in the perfect position to score a convincing victory at Pimlico this Saturday, and thus continue on his way to Belmont Park to seek the glory of the Triple Crown.
Then I took a closer look at the post draws for the rest of the horses, and suddenly—there was trouble.
Drawn directly outside of California Chrome in post four is Ring Weekend, a talented colt with a great deal of early speed. Winner of the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. II) in gate-to-wire fashion, Ring Weekend didn’t seem to care for the change in running style when asked to come from off the pace in the Calder Derby, where he finished a distant second as the heavy favorite. A return to his front-running style is expected for the Preakness, which means that Ring Weekend will likely clear California Chrome early and drop in front of the favorite.
Drawn directly inside of California Chrome in post two is General a Rod, runner-up in the Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II) and most recently eleventh in the Kentucky Derby. Like Ring Weekend, General a Rod possesses excellent tactical speed, and the plan is to use that speed to get out near the lead and avoid getting trapped along the inside. This means that he, too, may find himself ahead of California Chrome in the early stages of the Preakness.
In gate five we find Bayern, who has led at the first, second, and third calls in each of his last three starts. After leading gate-to-wire last time out in the Derby Trial Stakes (gr. III), only to be disqualified for interfering with the runner-up, the blinkers are coming off, and the plan is for Bayern to stalk the pace. This means that if Ring Weekend and General a Rod both beat California Chrome to the lead, Bayern will likely find himself racing outside of the Derby winner, with the option of keeping the favorite boxed in along the rail.
As if this weren’t bad enough, I haven’t even mentioned Social Inclusion, Pablo Del Monte, and Ride On Curlin, who drew posts eight, nine, and ten. All three of them have demonstrated tremendous early speed, and while Ride On Curlin is more likely to take back a few lengths off the lead and make a late run, the connections of Social Inclusion would like to see their colt on the lead, and Pablo Del Monte won’t be too far back either.
So in essence, my point is that unless California Chrome breaks like a rocket and is urged aggressively to secure good position, he is likely to find himself boxed in along the rail—which has not been the place to be at Pimlico as of late—with no racing room to be found.
Up until the post position draw, I had no intentions of picking a horse other than California Chrome to win the Preakness. I believed he was the best horse in the Derby, and I believe he is the best horse in the Preakness. Assuming he works out a good trip, I think he will romp on Saturday.
But as we all know, the best horse doesn’t always win, and with a troubled trip a possibility for the Derby winner, I have decided to take a shot against him with Ride On Curlin. I have liked this colt since his very first start way back in June 2013, and I have remained a supporter despite his tendency to turn in an occasional sub-par performance. He had little chance to win the Kentucky Derby after sitting in last place for much of the race behind slow fractions, and while jockey Calvin Borel did his best to find room along the rail, an opening didn’t appear in time, which forced Borel to guide the colt some nine or ten paths wide at the top of the stretch. Once in the clear, Ride On Curlin put in an eye-catching late run to finish seventh, beaten just a length for fourth place. What intrigues me the most about Ride On Curlin is that he actually has a ton of tactical speed, and can put in a good run from just about anywhere in a given race. Having drawn gate ten, I expect to see him drop off the early pace—but not too far back!—and come running on the outside in the homestretch, hopefully taking advantage of a fast early pace. All reports are that he has thrived since the Derby, and his :49 3/5 half-mile breeze on Wednesday was exceptional. I think he’s sitting on a career-best performance on Saturday.
Another horse I have my eye on is Social Inclusion, who missed the Derby after finishing third in the Wood Memorial (gr. I) and failing to garner enough qualification points to secure a spot in the race. In the Wood Memorial, I thought Social Inclusion had the field at his mercy on the far turn, as he seemed to be running easily while his rivals were being pushed to keep up. That he faded in the homestretch to finish third was a shock, but I think that race—his third in six weeks—was a great foundation for future success, and he has trained as well as anyone else in the lead-up to the Preakness. I expect to see him on the lead this Saturday, and regardless of whether the pace is fast or slow, I think he can has the talent to remain a factor down the homestretch.
A couple days ago, I explained in a blog post why Bayern might be sitting on an improved performance in the Preakness, but for various reasons—potential pace scenario and post position draw among them—I’m going to generally side against him in this spot. I still think he could be a force later this summer, in races like the Haskell Invitational, but the Preakness may prove a tough spot for him.
Another colt I want to like, but am leaning against, is Dynamic Impact. His victory in the Illinois Derby (gr. III) was solid, and if the early pace is quick, he can definitely sit back and take advantage. But drawing post one was far from ideal, as he will now have to drop back and try to circle the field to avoid racing along the rail. In a better position from that perspective is Kid Cruz, a deep-closer that has drawn gate seven. He will most likely be in last place early on, but he has demonstrated an impressive stretch kick in his last couple of races, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets up to crack the superfecta.
In conclusion, the 139th Preakness Stakes presents an interesting quandary for racing fans and handicappers. The racing fan in me will be cheering hard for California Chrome to overcome his poor post draw and take another major step toward winning the Triple Crown. But the handicapper in me will try to beat him with Ride On Curlin and Social Inclusion.
How about you?