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2014 Preakness: A look back and a look ahead

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California Chrome runs the Derby in 2:03.66. Everyone else runs it in about 2:04 or slower... and we're concerned, why?

Andy Lyons

I've been catching up on some non-horse racing items this past week (and entertaining family for this weekend's Mothers Day festivities), but thought I'd toss out an assortment of thoughts on last week's Derby and the upcoming Preakness.

A bulk of the post-Derby discussion centered around California Chrome's final time of 2:03.66 (Trakus has it as 2:03.26), a pretty slow time over a fast track. We can go over the possible reasons for the slow time - slow horses, wind speed and direction, and track condition after the typical (and absurdly) long wait in between races prior to the Derby - but, ultimately, we are simply are left with what our eyes saw as the race unfolded last week: California Chrome sprinting away from his rivals at the top of the lane and cruising home under the wire.

As many have written and mentioned this week - and Tribe also stated in his post earlier this week - California Chrome isn't running against horses from the last ten, twenty or thirty years - it doesn't matter how fast (or slow) his time was in the Derby. All that matters is that he utterly dominated his rivals on that day at that track. The rest of this crop of three-year-old colts needs to make up serious ground on the Derby winner in the Preakness, which is always a distinct possibility after a big effort in the Derby. Personally, I don't see California Chrome as "vulnerable" simply based on his final time or speed figure. California Chrome isn't running against Secretariat at Pimlico*, he's running against a this year's crop of three-year-old colts. And, as we plainly saw in the Derby, Secretariat isn't part of this year's crop.

Speaking of historically important horses and their Derby times, Count Fleet stopped the Churchill Downs timer at 2:04 flat in 1943 and, from what I've read, he did "okay" in the Preakness and Belmont. Just okay.

Another one of the takeaways from this year's Derby: the one hole continues to suck in a field as big as the Derby, and don't let anyone tell you differently.

Go back and take a look at the replay and just focus on the Ramsey "R" of Vicar's in Trouble during the initial run through the stretch after the start. The race was over for Rosie and the Louisiana Derby champ before they hit the first turn because, as usual, the field came down on the colt after he didn't have the necessary speed to out sprint the cavalry through the initial furlong. And that's with the one hole moving one spot out due to the scratch of Hoppertunity.

As long as the Derby keeps running near 20 horses, the rail post position is going to continue to be a non-starter unless it goes to a stone-cold closer like Zenyatta that prefers to just walk out of the starting gate while spotting the field 10 to 15 lengths.

The big name standing in the way of California Chrome grabbing the second leg of the Triple Crown is, of course, Social Inclusion, a runaway winner at Gulfstream this fall and a good third in the Wood Memorial after setting a strong pace at the Big A. On paper, Social Inclusion is clearly the most appealing and popular pick to throw a wrench in the Cali Chrome party. However, I certainly have some concerns before I'm jumping full force onto the Social Inclusion bandwagon.

First, missing the Sir Bear Stakes at Gulfstream last Saturday with a bruised foot. Yeah, it's minor and he's plenty fresh heading into the Preakness, but I just don't like any horse missing any scheduled race or work heading into a big race, ESPECIALLY with a foot issue (no matter how minor). That's simply a red flag for me.

Second, his two big wins saw him get everything his own way on the front end of a Gulfstream track that was kind to speed all winter. And while there doesn't appear to be a ton of speed in this year's Preakness, I don't think he's going to be gift-wrapped an easy lead... of course, stranger things have happened.

As for some of the other potential contenders for the Preakness, according to Preakness.com:

  • Bayern: Flashed brilliance versus allowance horses at Santa Anita but, and this is a big but, he's done his best work when he's on the lead and he'll have to contend with Social Inclusion up front in the early stages. Social Inclusion, right now, is a higher quality speed horse than Bayern.
  • Dynamic Impact: I like that his form and development is trending in the right direction. He took a while to break his maiden but he was a determined winner of the Illinois Derby and you never know how big of a leap one of these three year olds is ready to take. He likes to stalk the pace and that's a good spot to be in at the Preakness.
  • General a Rod: I'd toss his Derby run given the fact that he was never able to run his kind of race. He should be able to get up on his preferred running style at Pimlico where he'll have to contend with Bayern and Social Inclusion. There's the potential of things getting a bit crowded up there.
  • Kid Cruz: Won the Federico Tesio and another stakes race at Laurel, which in the absence of a Maryland-bred in this year's field, makes him about as close to the "hometown hope" as can be found.
  • Pablo Del Monte: I feel the same way about Pablo in the Preakness as I did with him in the Derby: his best races are on synthetic or turf, not dirt. And his dirt tries, both at one turn at Gulfstream, were not nearly good enough to win this race. Plus, his best races saw him run on the lead, a running style he's never been able to duplicate on dirt simply due to the fact that he doesn't possess a tremendous amount of gate speed. He needs to improve greatly at the Preakness, or hope horses like California Chrome and Social Inclusion flop badly. He makes some sense in the tri or super but hard to see him in the top 2.
  • What the hell are the owners of Ria Antonia thinking? Look, I get it - you had a great upset win in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (a race that looks pretty weak on paper) and you're looking to ride the gravy train for a while. Hey, no problem having fun owning a good filly and taking some shots. But, jeez, this filly has still only crossed the finish line in first place once in her career - her maiden win. I guess they are looking to grab a share of the prize and perhaps get lucky and finish in the top four or three. However, I just don't see it.
  • Ring Weekend: His signature victory was a win in the funky Tampa Bay Derby, a race that I'm still scratching my head about. If he needs the lead to win, he's screwed in this race.
  • Ride On Curlin: Not a great effort in the Derby as he was passing a lot of tired, beat horses in the final furlongs but, like many of his prior races, he didn't quit. Just on the numbers, his Derby run wasn't too far off of his prior efforts so there's a case to be made that a bit better trip in the early going (which he should get at Pimlico) could put him in the mix in the late stages.

With a very early, 10,000 foot look at this year's potential Preakness field, it sure seems like California Chrome is going to get a trip where he's sitting third or fourth, running two or three lengths off the early pace. And that's a running style and trip that has suited him to a "T" all spring long. The big issue with the Derby winner, as it is with many horses wheeling back on short rest after a big race, is how much gas does this colt have left in the tank? Is it enough to hold off some new, fresh horses in the form of Social Inclusion? We'll find out in a week.