Mike Watchmaker Preakness picks off of DRF.......
Only four of the 13 horses in Saturday’s Preakness at Pimlico competed in the Kentucky Derby, and none of them was the Derby’s first horse under the wire, or the one who was made the official winner.
I note this not to go off on how the Triple Crown needs repair, because it certainly does not. While some wring their hands over the nature of this year’s Preakness and claim if there were more time between the three Triple Crown races we wouldn’t see a Preakness as soft as this one, I say this all depends much more on the quality of each year’s 3-year-old crop. Besides, with two Triple Crown winners since the good ol’ days of 2015, including one all the way back to just last year, this sort of Triple Crown renovation talk should be subjected to a 25-year moratorium.
No, I note the fact that less than one-third of this Preakness field is composed of Derby participants because I feel it is interesting from a handicapping perspective.
There is a general belief among horseplayers and handicappers that the 3-year-olds who compete in the Kentucky Derby are simply better than those who don’t. When you think about it, this makes a lot of sense.
In almost all instances, the reason why a 3-year-old does not run in the Derby but does compete in the Preakness has little to do with timing. Let’s be real. A 3-year-old who is mobile enough to start in the Preakness just two weeks after the Derby was probably mobile enough to compete in the Derby. No, this is all about the lack of sufficient points to make the Derby field which, to be blunt, is merely a euphemism for simply not being good enough to make the Derby cut.
That is the foundation for the belief that Derby contestants are a cut above their contemporaries. But like everything else in racing, this is not an immutable truth.
For example, only two years ago, Cloud Computing won the Preakness, and he did not participate in the Kentucky Derby. Eight years before that, Rachel Alexandra bounded out of a Kentucky Oaks win to deny males in the Preakness. And three years before that, Bernardini won the Preakness after passing on the Derby.
Yet, despite these relatively recent exceptions, I do consider the belief that Derby participants are generally a notch above their peers to be well founded.
Most of the time, anyway. I mean, two of the four in this Preakness coming out of the Derby are horses I just cannot see winning.
Bodexpress is one. Sure, two starts back, Bodexpress was second around the track in the Florida Derby to Maximum Security, who came back to finish first in the Kentucky Derby. But the Florida Derby was a slow-paced, conveyor belt-like affair. It is more important that Bodexpress had already run up the white flag and was going to be soundly beaten when he was one of the three horses fouled by Maximum Security nearing the stretch of the Derby. And most importantly, Bodexpress is a maiden. He hasn’t yet won a race of any sort.
The other Derby colt I can’t make in this Preakness is Win Win Win. To me, Win Win Win is a prototypical closing sprinter. His Beyer Speed Figures in his last three starts (which were his first three attempts going two turns) fell by 10, 11, and 10 Beyer points from a big sprint win four starts back. Win Win Win did get some extra credit for rallying in the Blue Grass against the grain of a speed-favoring track. But he was never a threat to win, and I saw no excuse for him in the Derby, in which he was 10th under the wire.
Of course, I find it even tougher to make many of the nine in this Preakness who didn’t start in the Derby. Late entrant Everfast might be the most overmatched horse in the race. He is 0 for 9 since a desperate maiden win last summer at Ellis Park and was absolutely crushed in stakes in his last three starts at giant odds. Moreover, from a Beyer standpoint, Everfast is one of the two slowest horses here along with Market King, who lacks even a single race from his eight career starts that gives him a remote chance of contending.
Signalman isn’t that much faster. He had no business getting nailed for second by Win Win Win in Blue Grass after a perfect trip, and he never ran a step in the Fountain of Youth in his other start this year, despite a fantastically favorable pace setup.
Laughing Fox and Warrior’s Charge both hail from top outfits (Steve Asmussen and Brad Cox, respectively) and come off nice wins at Oaklawn. But Laughing Fox was badly beaten the two times he ran against some of the better members of this 3-year-old crop, and Warrior’s Charge is unlikely to pull the same sort of comfy trips he’s had of late beating much weaker company.
Speaking of sweet trips, Alwaysmining, the big local hope in this Preakness, has had a string of them in soft, short-field races. He has won six straight and hasn’t had to break a sweat in hardly any of them. But I suspect he’s in for a big wake-up call Saturday.
On the other hand, Anothertwistafate didn’t have the most ideal of trips finishing second in the Lexington and Sunland Derby since moving back to dirt. Still, the best we’ve seen of him so far would at best get him a minor share.
Owendale and Bourbon War are the remaining two in this Preakness who did not compete in the Derby, and I think each has a shot. Owendale ran by far the best race of his life winning the Lexington most recently over Anothertwistafate, making good on an explosive five-wide move on the far turn. That said, Owendale was nicely set up pace-wise in the Lexington, and now must go an additional furlong against stronger company.
Bourbon War is dangerous. He was severely compromised by the slow pace when fourth in the Florida Derby, and he has been very close to Code of Honor, who was third under the line in the Derby, albeit with a very good trip. My concern with Bourbon War is when he was a rapidly gaining second in the Fountain of Youth two starts back, he capitalized on a pace meltdown of historic proportions, the likes of which he is unlikely to see Saturday, or maybe ever again.
That leaves Improbable and War of Will, the other two in this Preakness who ran in the Derby. And I do believe they are a cut above this field.
Improbable was my pick in the Derby, and though he finished worse than second for the first time in his six-race career that day, his fifth-place finish was an okay effort. He didn’t have the trouble in the Derby that others had, but he never seemed entirely comfortable, either.
However, Improbable’s game second to the brutally unlucky Omaha Beach two starts back in the Arkansas Derby is the best race anyone in this Preakness has ever run. And despite a stellar wet-track pedigree (he is by City Zip, from an A.P. Indy mare), I sense Improbable will be well served by getting away from the sloppy tracks he’s caught in his last two starts and getting back on fast footing this time.
That said, War of Will is my Preakness pick.
I realize that might surprise a few folks because no one was a bigger War of Will skeptic than yours truly when he was winning the Lecomte and Risen Star early this year. My book on him then was, despite easy, favorable trips in those races, War of Will just didn’t run all that fast in winning them, and he should have.
But War of Will opened my eyes in the Derby. He was full of run all the way to the point when Maximum Security veered out and almost dropped him, and he demonstrated courage to fight on for a time after that severe trouble.
As it was, War of Will wound up being beaten only two lengths by the Derby’s third-place finisher, and to say that Maximum Security gave him at least two lengths worth of trouble would be an exercise in massive understatement.
What is even more impressive, War of Will ran as well as he did in the Derby without a truly representative outing in 11 long weeks. You can’t count his start in the Louisiana Derby in late March as representative, because it wasn’t. Don’t forget, War of Will sustained a right hind injury in the initial stages of that one. Not only does that make his Louisiana Derby a total throw out, it also makes you wonder what benefit, if any, he could have possibly gained out of that start.
In that sense alone, War of Will has a greater right than anyone in this Preakness to take a significant step forward Saturday. But that, in combination with a fair trip, might well be all he needs.