Monday, May 18, 2009

Wither the Preakness starters? Here's my advice.

Late Saturday it started running through my head: If I were the connections of various Preakness starters, what would I do next?

Here are the conclusions I reached.

1. Rachel Alexandra: Winning the Preakness earned back a fair piece (maybe 6 to 10 percent) of her purchase price for Jess Jackson's Stonestreet Stables and Harold McCormick. She was impressive, tiring perhaps toward the end, but she did all the work in the race, gunning from the 13 hole and taking the field gate to wire. And jockey Calvin Borel said she didn't handle the track "110 percent." The Belmont is not a given; neither as a win (Mine That Bird is a'comin') nor even as a destination. She's defeated boys and can go back to beating up on fillies and have a fair chance at Horse of the Year -- clearly one of Jackson's goals -- without necessarily facing them again, especially if she knocks heads with defending filly and mare champ Zenyatta somewhere along the way and beats her, too. Unless Rachel is perfect in training the next three weeks, that's what I'd do. And maybe even then.

2. Mine That Bird: Better than I imagined, the Little Gelding Who Could probably will in the Belmont. He's a gelding, so the only way for him to earn his keep is by racing. If he's "right," he goes to New York, and probably as the favorite, with or without Rachel Alexandra. Look for him in some challenging spots at classic distances -- The Haskell at Monmouth early in August and the Travers at Saratoga at the end of the month, particularly. The goal is the Breeders' Cup Classic, but if that doesn't seem the best spot when that time comes, perhaps tackle the B.C. Marathon this year (he should get the distance; we'll know post-Belmont) and the Classic at 4.

3. Musket Man: Few Triple Crown-trail entrants have impressed me more than this colt. Sired by a sprinter who has already been banished from Kentucky to Louisiana (Yonaguska) he just doesn't seem bred to get the distances of the Preakness (9.5 furlongs) and Kentucky Derby (10f). But he "toughed" his way to third in both, and he won the Illinois Derby-G2 covering 9f at Hawthorne. It seemed his finishes at Churchill and Pimlico were all guts and not enough "kick;" he couldn't overtake Pioneerof The Nile at Churchill nor Rachel at Pimlico, and got outfinished by Mine That Bird. No shame in that and I'm not saying I'd never consider sending him longer than 8.5 or 9 furlongs again. But I do think he might be devastating in a one-turn mile.

4. Flying Private: What an improvement from Derby (last of 19) to Preakness (fourth). He might not have been as bad as the former and might not be as good as the latter; time will tell. Despite more than a quarter-million earned, he still has just one win from 12 starts. Time to get that second win in softer company.

5. Big Drama: Fifth place at Pimlico, but might've run the second-or third-biggest race. He already was coming into the Preakness with only one prep (DQ'ed from first in a 7f record-shattering performance at Gulfstream), and being asked to go an eighth more distance than he'd ever raced. Then he lived up to his name by bucking off John Velazquez in the starting gate, and followed that by bobbling the break. Somehow, he still made the co-lead with that freak of a filly while being wandered out into the center of the track, I can only presume in an effort to hang her out wide on the turn. Fifth beaten 5 1/2 doesn't seem so bad after all that. Nevertheless, as another, like Musket Man, who is sired by a sprinter (Montbrook) I would turn him back in his next start; maybe the G2 Woody Stephens at 7f on the Belmont undercard. We know he's a beast at that distance.

6. Papa Clem: This colt has had a tough trail. Second in both the Robert B. Lewis on the California circuit and the Louisiana Derby when shipped cross-country to Fair Grounds, he finally picked up that big graded win in the Arkansas Derby, over now-retired Old Fashioned. He was a brave fourth after a troubled trip on Derby Day, but a disappointing sixth at Pimlico despite less trouble than most of the field seems to have had. Seems time for a break. One of the best-bred in what is obviously a first-class group -- by Smart Strike, sire of Curlin and English Channel, and both his first two dams were G1 winners -- the sky is still the limit for this one. But after all that racing and traveling, a month or six weeks off could be in order.

7. Terrain: Has knocked heads with good horses, but hasn't won a race since Sept. 13, age 2, the Arlington-Washington Futurity-G3 -- and that by double-DQ. Bred to get a route of ground, he just hasn't been good enough to win in top-graded company. A move down in class from G1/G2 company is likely in order, at least until he wins a couple and regains confidence.

8. Luv Gov: Can we try NW2L company next out? Please?

9. General Quarters: Another one likely due for a break. He has campaigned hard and earned a bit of glory for his amazing, retired ex-school-principal owner/trainer/groom Thomas F. McCarthy, taking the G1 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland and the G3 Sam F. Davis at Tampa. But he's made six starts already at 3 and is one of the few 2-year-olds who didn't really rest over the winter, running in four allowances (no wins?!) in October and November, then placing in Tampa's Inaugural Stakes two days after Christmas. Tenth at Churchill and ninth at Pimlico might be signs of fatigue. Break or not, I'd next send him back to the surface of his greatest victory -- synthetics. For Mr. McCarthy, that could mean working vacations to Canada (Woodbine) or California, or maybe just hanging around Chicago to try older horses in the Chicago H.-G3 on Independence Day at Arlington Park and the Washington Park H.-G3 in September.

10. Friesan Fire: Trouble at Churchill (18th place, suffering minor cuts on his legs), trouble at Pimlico (dropped almost to his knees at the start, finished 10th), so you'd think it might be time to pull back and regroup. But trainer Larry Jones is one of the best, and spaced this colt's races right leading up to the Derby. He shouldn't be too fatigued, though it's hard to imagine he came out of the Preakness terribly well, tough trip considered. But I wouldn't expect him to be sidelined all that long. While his sire is A.P. Indy, who usually throws plenty of stamina, his dam, Australian-bred Group 1-winner Bollinger, was a sprinter, so maybe the races in which he was so successful -- the Lecomte (8f), Risen Star (8.5f) and Louisiana Derby (8.5f), all at Fair Grounds -- are indicative that he's really a miler.

11. Pioneerof The Nile: I have two words for owner Ahmed Zayat and trainer Bob Baffert -- Hollywood Derby. Time and again we've seen synthetic performance translate to turf, and vice-versa, on the California circuit. He placed on synethic in the Lane's End at Keeneland, age 2, then ran a respectable fifth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. And he did everything right in four straight graded wins over synthetics leading up to Churchill. So we're goin' back to Cali (Cali, Cali) and is anyone gonna beat us? (I don't think so.) ... Seriously though, turns out Pioneer broke his maiden on the lawn at Saratoga, no mean feat. And while his sire, Empire Maker, might have run on dirt, Empire Maker's dam, Toussaud, was a turf mare and produced three G1/G2 turf winners, Chester House, Chiselling and Decarchy. And (I've written this before), Pioneer's dam, Star of Goshen, was turf-stakes-placed, not to mention a daughter of noted turf sire, Lord At War(ARG), John's Call (Turf Classic Invitational, Sword Dancer Invitational) and Honor In War (Woodford Reserve Turf Classic) notable as G1-winning turf offspring. ... A bolder course of action would be to check out Pioneer's 3-year-old grass form in the Colonial Turf Cup-G2, two weeks after the Belmont (so five weeks of rest since Pimlico) and, if he wins there, point to the Virginia Derby-G2 and follow the Grand Slam of Grass trail all the way to the Breeders' Cup Turf-G1. ... But admittedly, I love grass horses.

12. Tone It Down: A return to allowance-level company is in order. I'll leave it at that until he shows me more.

13. Take The Points: I liked this colt prior to the Preakness. He was six-wide in the race, but I have a feeling something else went wrong, or perhaps they'll find he's not feeling well, because this battler had never been worse than fourth in his life. He's run his fastest going a one-turn mile at Gulfstream, but was respectable in two starts on synthetics in California. Appears to be bred to go however far he needs, so I wouldn't absolutely cut him back in distance for good. Just figure out what went wrong and try to find a group he can beat next time.

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