Post time for Race 5 is 12:51 pm EDT
It's Preakness day. The birds are singing, the sun is shining, and as Raymond Chandler put it, the call houses that specialize in 16-year-old virgins are doing land-office business. And in the parimutuel department at Pimlico, they are stacking the hundred-dollar bills, making them nice and neat, just for you to come and take them.
The main track in Baltimore was fast yesterday, and will be fast today. It was also fair -- horses won from all over the place -- and we expect it to be fair again today. The turf course was listed as good, but was upgraded to firm on Saturday morning. It will continue to dry out today, but we are expecting that because of all the rain in Baltimore earlier this week, there will still be a little bit of cut in the grass. This is fine -- it will not affect the racing much, if at all.
We're going to work out of order today, with a detailed look at the big race, the Preakness, first, and then a shorter look at the stakes races on the undercard after. Let's go.
We'll start our analysis of the Preakness by getting one uncomfortable subject out of the way: We are not going to mention the horses who are not here. This is a big race, a true classic, and while this might not be the best field in the history of the race, it's plenty good enough to justify its place as the second jewel in the Triple Crown. The winner today will be a Preakness winner forever.
We have looked at this field upside down, sideways, and a few other ways, and for us it comes down to 5/2 morning favorite 4-Improbable. This Bob Baffert trainee did not win the Kentucky Derby, but notwithstanding that, he has been amazingly consistent: He's earned a Beyer Speed Figure between 95 and 99 in his last four races, going all the way back to his win in last December's Los Alamitos Futurity. We think that this pretty clearly shows his ability: He runs his race every time. We are projecting a similar number for him today: put Improbable down for a Beyer in the neighborhood of 98 or 99.
This leads to an obvious question: is there another horse in the race who can run fast enough to beat him? Let's take a look.
We'll start with the expected pace scenario. As we mentioned in our series on handicapping the race, the Preakness does not usually have the kind of destructive early pace that can happen in the Kentucky Derby. That said, we do expect the early fractions today to be robust: Warrior's Charge, Market King, Alwaysmining, and Anothertwistafate all have early speed, and they will all probably use it. This should ensure an honest, if not suicidal, pace. This will make it hard for both the front-runners and the deep closers to win: the pace will be fast enough to make it unlikely for a horse to win it on or near the front end; but the pace will not be so fast that the leaders collapse, and the come-from-behinders can mop up. As is so often the case, we expect the race shape to favor the stalkers, the horses just behind the group leading the way in the early going.
With the expected race shape as context, we can take a look at the individual runners. 6-Market King, 8-Signalman, 10-Everfast and 11-Laughing Fox are throw-outs. They are too slow to win. They may affect the pace, and any one of them could clunk up for a minor placing, but they can be comfortably removed from win consideration.
2-Bourbon War likewise looks too slow to us. Moreover, he's a deep closer in a race we do not think sets up for deep closers. He's a non-contender.
3-Warrior's Charge will help set the pace, but he's never been farther than a mile and a sixteenth, and we expect him to falter late. Toss him.
5-Owendale has earned one one competitive speed figure in his life, a 98 in his win in the Lexington at Keeneland, but that was a pace- and bias-aided fluke that will not happen again. We are removing him from win consideration.
7-Alwaysmining looks to us like the biggest underlay in the race. There's usually one horse like this every year: a local horse who wins a few minor stakes at Laurel Park, and attracts some sentimental fans and some foolish punters. The Preakness is not the Federico Tesio Stakes; Alwaysmining is going to crack under the pressure today. We think he's a cinch to finish off the board, and at a probable post time price in the neighborhood of 6-1, we wish we could book his bets. Needless to say, we are throwing him out.
9-Bodexpress is an interesting horse: he's earned some good speed figures, but he's still a maiden. He will win a race eventually, but it will not be today. Pass.
12-Anothertwistafate looks to us like a horse sitting on a big race. He's got competitive speed figures (last two: 95 and 94),and his runner-up finish in the Lexington was a solid effort. He's run six times, and not counting his career debut, he's finished first or second in all of them. He's a contender.
13-Win Win Win is another impressively consistent horse. The only problem with this is that the level of his consistency is too slow to win this. He's a throw-out.
We've purposely gone out of order, and left 1-War of Will until last. We've done this because he is the toughest call in the race. This is a highly talented colt who was good enough to be the odds-on choice in the Louisiana Derby, and whose traffic troubles in the Kentucky Derby certainly affected his chances. Every year, there's a horse whose Derby run resembles a ride on the bumper cars, and this year it was War of Will. He's certainly capable of running better, and an improvement would make him a very serious threat to win the race.
Winnowing the field this way leaves us three horses who appear to have enough ability to win the race: War of Will, Improbable, and Anothertwistafate, but we like Improbable the most. We think that he's got the most natural ability of these horses, and we also think the projected shape of the race will favor his running style: we see him getting a perfect stalking trip from post position 4: he'll be able to ride the rail and stalk the front-runners, saving ground around the first turn. He will make a move on the far turn, and we think he seizes control of the race in mid-stretch and hold off the late chargers.
Improbable is our pick in the Preakness, and we will bet him to win. He is the favorite, and he may possibly be slightly overbet, but as the late, great Jay Cronley used to say, there is value in every winner, and there is value in picking Improbable on top. The bet: Pimlico, Race 13, $50 to win on 4-Improbable.
Now we turn to the races on the undercard. In order to keep this post shorter than the sequel to War and Peace, we will try to be as succinct as possible. We will also dispense with the listing of race conditions, post times, and the like: this stuff is readily available elsewhere, so we'll get right to the handicapping brass tacks.
Race 5, The James W. Murphy Stakes is a mile on turf for 3-year-olds. The pick here is 5-Real News: He's stretching out from a sprint to a route, and we think the extra distance will suit him. We pick him to win at 5-1.
Race 6, The Maryland Sprint has horses 3 and up going 6 furlongs on dirt. Eagles fans everywhere will likely bet aggressively on 6-Wentz, but to us he looks a cut below 9/5 morning line favorite 4-Lewisfield. Lewisfield is the pick here.
Race 7, The Searching has fillies and mares 3 and up going long, 1 1/2 miles on the turf. 2-Homeland Security gets the nod here; she's 2-for-2 lifetime at this distance, and we are expecting her to grind out a win today at 9/2.
Race 9, The Very One has females 3 and older sprinting 5 furlongs on the turf. We like 6-Jo Jo Air. This Wesley Ward trainee, a 4-year-old daughter of Scat Daddy, seems to be improving rapidly, and won a minor stakes at Churchill last out. We expect another win today at 3-1.
Race 10, The Gallorette is another filly turf race; it's females 3 and up at 1 1/16 miles on the turf. We love 9-Barkaa in here: this Chad Brown trainee won a Group 3 race at Longchamps in Paris last year, which is as good as it gets; though she ran a dud in her North American debut at Belmont Park in September, we think she's sitting on a biggie here. At 6-1, she's the best bet on the card. We also like another Euro, 1-I'm So Fancy, who also won a Group 3 race in Europe last year, the Snow Fairy stakes at the Curragh in Ireland; we will bet Barkaa to win, and will box Barkaa and I'm So Fancy in the exacta.
Race 11, The Chick Lang has nine 3-year-olds sprinting six furlongs on the dirt. We like 8-Preamble here: This boy is undefeated in three career starts, cuts back from 7 to 6 furlongs, and draws outside the speed. We see a good stalking trip and a trip to the winner's circle for Preamble.
Race 12, The Dixie is horses 3 and up going 1 1/16 mile on the turf. In a wide-open race lacking a clear-cut favorite, we are going for a longshot here: 3-Admission Office. This 4-year-old was last seen winning an allowance race on the grass at Keeneland, running the final quarter mile a shade over 22 seconds. This is sensational, and with plenty of early speed in the race, he should have pace to run at. We're betting that he lights up the tote board at 12-1.
That's all for today. Enjoy the racing: The weather gods have smiled on Pimlico this year, and it will be a sensational day at Old Hilltop. And as always, good luck at the windows.