May 20, 2011
Someone asked me a question this week: Why is this the 136th Preakness and we just finished the 137th Kentucky Derby? The better question might have been, why isn't this the 122th Preakness? Apparently there was no Preakness at Pimlico from 1894 to 1908. Apparently in 1947 Pimlico ran the 57th running. But in 1948, when a colt named Citation was the winner, it was called the 71st running. It seems someone discovered a race called "The Preakness Stakes" had been run at the old Gravesend track in New York and the folks at Pimlico simply borrowed back the name for their race in 1948.
That is one of the most interesting facts about this longtime feature which has taken the place as the second gem of the Triple Crown, a title given the set of three races by Daily Racing Form writer Charles Hatton midway through the 20th century.
Over the past decade it might be called the Oaklawn Preakness. Since 2004 five of the seven winners have come off races in Arkansas at Oaklawn Park. Smarty Jones started a run of three in a row in 2004. He was followed to the winner's circle at the track lovingly called "Old Hilltop" by Afleet Alex in 2005 and Curlin in 2006. After a break of two years, Rachel Alexandra became one of the few wire-to-wire winners in 2009, in a dramatic finish when she barely held off Kentucky Derby winner, Mine That Bird. Then, last year, Lookin At Lucky scored the win in the Preakness on his way to the three-year-old title.
This year's edition contains two runners out of the Arkansas Derby, Dance City and Sway Away, the third and fourth place finishers in the Oaklawn feature, and both drew excellent post positions in the 14-horse field. Dance City will start from post eight, while Sway Away will be in post six. There will be no "inside or outside" excuse for either. Instead the biggest news for this year's Preakness seems to be the lingering rain which has stayed in the Maryland area all week. As of Wednesday, the outlook was good for Saturday at the Preakness and the good news is the drainage at the Pimlico has always been better than most. There is hope for a fast track on Saturday afternoon, although there will be a few hoping that a wet track might change their luck.
I would think the horse to benefit most from an "off" track might very well be Mucho Macho Man. A son of Macho Uno, he seems to be the most comfortable of this lot on "off" going and he certainly comes to the race off a tough trip in the Kentucky Derby. To me his trip seemed as tough as that of Afleet Alex in the Kentucky Derby and, of course, Afleet Alex scored one of the most incredible and memorable Preakness wins in history when he was nearly dropped at the head of the stretch, but was gathered back together by the remarkably athletic rider, Jeremy Rose, and stormed to a dominant win. Three weeks later he won the most impressive win at the Belmont since Secretariat's in my opinion.
But this race has been a favorable spot for those who travelled over the Oaklawn surface in the last decade, so I'm going to expect much better performances from Dance City and Sway Away. There is no such thing as tighter turns at Pimlico. That delusion has been successfully refuted in recent years. These are simply quality racehorses with excellent tactical speed. Although they didn't win at Oaklawn, they did both perform with distinction and will give Mucho Macho Man all he can handle.
What about Animal Kingdom? Well one thing in his favor is that he is good right now. It is tough to knock him. He never runs a bad race. His win would give racing a chance at a Triple Crown horse in three weeks and that would be a good thing to place the sport back on the national sports radar. I just don't see it happening. To me he'll either be a Dust Commander or a Canonero II. He'll either be a one-race wonder or he'll be the huge surprise horse who runs well for the short stretch of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, then falter in the Belmont Stakes.
What might be the most interesting part of the Animal Kingdom story is where he will eventually end up racing this year, dirt or turf. Everyone knows that his pedigree points him towards grass or synthetic. There are few horses which have shown equal ability on dirt, turf and synthetic. To me that is the most interesting part of this developing story. First, however, he must run a respectable race back in the Preakness.
From my personal experience it reminds me of a horse I saw run effectively on both the flat and over hurdles in France over 40 years ago. Trompette Major was a horse who helped me afford to live as a student in Paris in the mid-60s. He was equally effective over the hurdles at Auteuil and the flat at Longchamp in Paris. The tracks are at either end of the Bois de Boulogne in Paris and were quite easy for me to reach by the Metro while I was a student there. I tried not to miss his races, since he paid a handsome price for me the first time I wagered a couple of francs on him. I was a trumpet player early in life and liked his name. While I don't use that handicapping tool any longer, it made for some nice days in Paris.
Since the horses I'm looking at for the Preakness, Mucho Macho Man, Dance City and Sway Away, all are pegged as decent prices on Saturday, perhaps I can come up with a new hero. Since Zenyatta retired, I'm missing a racing hero. It's time to change that.