Friendly Territory Again?

May 15, 2012

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A look at the history of Oaklawn runners at Pimlico in recent years provides some reason for optimism as we approach the biggest weekend of the year for the Maryland track. Truly Pimlico has come under fire in recent years and the entire Maryland circuit has been threatened by numerous factors.  But for Oaklawn runners, the Preakness weekend has been kind to say the least and we can only hope there is more of the same this coming weekend.

Oaklawn-raced horses have won five of the past eight Preakness Stakes, starting with Smarty Jones in 2004 and following with Afleet Alex, Curlin, Rachel Alexandra and Lookin At Lucky.  That’s a pretty impressive list of winners from one three-year-old program, but it points out that, except for Smarty Jones, the Preakness often derails the sport from providing a Triple Crown threat at Belmont.  Actually, since Smarty Jones made his run which gripped the entire nation, only Big Brown, in 2008, had a chance for Triple Crown glory.  His effort went up in smoke quickly, robbing the enthusiastic crowd, which few places besides New York can provide, of the chance to hail the long-awaited Triple Crown winner.

A number of the major players in the Kentucky Derby have stepped aside for this race, leaving it up to I’ll Have Another and Bodemeister to duke it out once again. I found it interesting to see on the Internet that trainer Doug O’Neill, in pursuit of racing’s most elusive prize, had time to visit with Secretariat’s jockey, Ron Turcotte, this week and discussed strategies.  In my years of watching racing there was no more jaw-dropping moment than when Secretariat looped the field on the first turn and took command on the Preakness on the backstretch. I can’t say that will be in the plans for I’ll Have Another on Saturday, but it certainly wouldn’t be the first time I’ve seen something like that happen.  I saw it one other time, when I was calling races in Omaha at Ak-Sar-Ben. In a Nebraska-bred stakes there was a speedball called Governor’s Lad and a come-from-behinder named Roman Zipper.  Both had styles which had long-since been established.  In a stroke of genius trainer Orville Kemling gave jockey Rob Williams the okay to take on Governor’s Lad from the outset and he put away Governor’s Lad, who would weaken when challenged early.  Roman Zipper was one of the best runners ever bred in the Cornhusker State and proved it with that change in strategy.  I’m anxious to watch on Saturday to see if there is any plan to challenge the speedsters, especially Bodemeister, through the early stages of the race which is at the odd mile-and-three-sixteenths distance.

At this writing, there are still three Oaklawn-raced runners under consideration for the race. They include Bodemeiser, Optimizer and Cozzetti (fourth in the Arkansas Derby). While Optimizer was considered a factor for the Arkansas Derby after his second in the Rebel, he failed to muster a serious threat either in the Arkansas or Kentucky Derbies and isn’t a serious threat in my book. Obviously, Cozzetti has a lot to prove. 

By the way, don’t let the drop back in distance fool you.  This race is not particularly accommodating for reformed sprinters and the turns at Pimlico are no tighter than they are at Churchill Downs. That story has already been written years before and we know those things are certain.

What I’m most interested in is the chance for our Oaklawn horses to shine once again. Friday’s card features the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes and included in the field is Fantasy winner Mamma Kimbo, unbeaten and fast.  This will be just the third race for the filly who ran off from the Fantasy field from the outset.  They’d better have their running shoes on, if they expect to beat her.  She has eight challengers and is scheduled to break from post four with Mike Smith aboard.  It’s unlikely any of her challengers will try to outrun Mamma Kimbo in the early going.  The race is a mile-and-an-eighth, so they will have to hope she stops in the stretch.  Glinda the Good, winner of the Instant Racing Stakes at Oaklawn is also in the field, but there are none with Mamma Kimbo’s level of speed.

For Alternation, who swept Oaklawn's three races for older horses, includingh the Oaklawn Handicap, the challenge will be showing that he can do at Pimlico what he did in defeating the best field put together yet this year for older horses in America this year in the Oaklawn Handicap.  He took over the race right from the start and had plenty left to hold off the late challengers, which included three he’ll face again on Friday, Hymn Book, Yawanna Twist and Nehro.  The race is called the Pimlico Special and scheduled at the Preakness distance of a mile-and-three-sixteenths.  There will be ten in that field with Alternation breaking from post number nine.  Five of the runners, including Alternation, will carry 124 pounds, while the rest are in at 118.  Alternation’s weight will come mostly in the person of regular rider Luis Quinonez, who has been with this horse through thick and thin.  Trainer Donnie K. Von Hemel has the luxury of two of America’s finest older horses in his barn in Alternation and Caleb’s Posse and the trainer has shown remarkable ability to handle both of them so successfully, although they are very different in racing styles.

On the other hand trainer D. Wayne Lukas sends his filly Colonial Empress in the Miss Preakness Stakes at six furlongs on Friday’s card.  Although she has been a maiden running against stakes company, she is obviously one who has shown plenty of ability and is a candidate to surprise a six furlong field at a nice price someday.  She breaks from the inside post position against eight seemingly talented rivals on Friday’s program in a race which has been kind to Oaklawn runners in the past.  This will be the first time this maiden filly has tried sprinting in her career and the competition will still be considerably softer than what she’s seen before.  Crazier things have happened.  By the way, Painted Woman, second to Good Deed in the Prima Donna Stakes at Oaklawn is also in the starting field and bearing solid credentials. The field includes the unbeaten Agave Kiss, whose five consecutive wins are likely to make her an odds-on favorite.   I see big prices in my dreams.

Pimlico has been kind of Oaklawn runners in the past.  Be prepared to take advantage of the friendly confines of the Maryland track.  The rewards are often juicy and memorable.             

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