News & Politics

Preakness Predictions

Kim Eisler's Prediction: 8 (Street Sense)-3 (Circular Quay)-4 (Curlin).

There are only nine horses in the Preakness. Two of them, Mint Slewlep (1), and Xchanger (2), seem to be in the race mainly to fill it. Mint Slewlip (1) didn’t even attract a national jockey—he’s being ridden by low-profile Alan Garcia, who has ridden the colt only once before and finished fourth against much worse competition. Xchanger won the first two races of his career but has only won once since then, and that was against a poor field on April 21, albeit here at Pimlico.

That leaves seven horses. Three of the seven are “new shooters” who did not run in the Kentucky Derby for one reason or another. Either they didn’t have enough winnings to get into the field, which is restricted to 20, or they weren’t healthy.

Trainer Todd Pletcher entered five horses in the Derby, but King of the Roxy (5) wasn’t one of them, Now he is one of two Pletchers in the Preakness. He is a cheap little thing who sold at the Keeneland September sale for just $8,000. He has since won two stakes races and returned $466,000 to his intrepid owner, Team Valor Stables. In his one try at a mile-and-an-eighth, in the weak Santa Anita Derby, he came in second, and the horse that won that race, Tiago, showed nothing in the Kentucky Derby.

King of the Roxy had a beautiful win in the seven-furlong Hutcheson Stake in Florida on March 3. This would be his third start of the season, but based on pedigree and past performance, it seems almost unthinkable that King of the Roxy could go a classic distance against competition of this quality. Both of his wins are at seven furlongs. Saturday’s race is nine-and-a-half furlongs. (The Derby is 10). His jockey, Garrett Gomez, had never ridden him before, and in the Triple Crown races you almost always want a horse and jockey who are familiar with each other.

That leaves six. The other two new shooters are Flying First Class (6) and CP West (9). Both are out of the line of Gone West, a son himself of Mr. Prospector, whose offspring are much better suited to mile-type distances than to the one-and-three-sixteenths miles of the Preakness. Both have raced exactly five times, and neither has been exactly spectacular.

CP West is coming out of a mile race in New York that he didn’t even win. In fact, since breaking his maiden at Saratoga last year, CP West has come in second three times but not won at all. At Gulfstream Park he failed to win a simple allowance race at odds of 3 to 5. He has been beaten by both Street Sense and King of the Roxy before. He does not seem to be moving forward as a three-year-old over what he was at two, and the far out post position 9 of 9 is not considered desireable at Old Hilltop.

Flying First Class is trained by Wayne Lukas. Once upon a time that would have been a major plus, but Lukas—who won four Derbys and five Preaknesses in the ’80s and ’90s—has been supplanted by his former assistant Todd Pletcher. Flying First Class seems likely to gun for the front, where he has won his two career races, an impressive maiden win at Oaklawn Park in February and then the Derby Trial on April 28th. He did not win at all as a two-year-old and was smushed by Curlin twice this year. His questionable breeding, poor track performance poor relative to the field, and his running style limit his chances. Since he had only one race at two, one must assume he was rushed into contention for the Triple Crown races, and his last effort came after only two weeks’ rest. I cannot endorse this colt in any way. shape, or form.

That leaves the four returning horses from the Kentucky Derby.

One of them, Street Sense (8), is running because as the Derby winner he pretty much has to.

Hard Spun (7) started his career in the mid-Altantic, running at Delaware Park. and has been thought of by his owners more as a Preakness horse than a Derby horse, although his magnificent breeding out of Danzig by a Turkoman mare stamps him as being capable of anything. Indeed, he has won five of seven, and his stirring performance in the Derby, holding second, makes clear that he has no distance limitations. His jockey, Mario Pino, returns to his home track as a low-key but highly successful career out of the bright lights.

Hard Spun certainly will pick up support at the windows. But his Derby came after a six-week layoff. Now he runs after just two weeks off. Does he have anything left? And will his front-running style be compromised by the likelihood that several of the new shooters, in the belief that Pimilico is a speed-favoring track, will try to gun for the lead. Horses took back in the Derby and let Hard Spun run around the track, but that isn’t likely to happen again. I had predicted a full scale calvary charge in the Derby that would compromise this colt’s chances, and it didn’t happen. I believe it will happen on Saturday and that the grueling Derby just two weeks ago will have taken its toll on Hard Spun.

That leaves Circular Quay (3) and Curlin (4) as the only challengers to Street Sense Saturday. Both have off-the-pace running styles, high-quality wins against tough opponents, and excellent trainer-jockey combinations. Circular Quay, a son of 1995 Derby winner Thunder Gulch, had a good excuse for his Derby disappointment: He had not raced in more than six weeks and thus wasn’t cranked up for the Derby. As a closer, this bad-luck horse did not get a fast enough speed duel to close into. That said, his numbers over his eight career races—he has won four times, including the Louisiana Derby—are not sensational. To win the Preakness would take a career-best effort. The problem is that a career-best effort may not be enough to win against Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense.

I certainly look for Circular Quay to improve off the Derby. Trainer Todd Pletcher had five horses in the Derby, and this is the only one that is coming back. Since Pletcher could have picked any of the five, one has to assume that Circular Quay used up the least energy in the Derby and was evaluated to be in the best shape to race after only two weeks’ rest. (This makes sense because he had almost a two-month break between the Louisiana Derby on March 10 and the Derby on May 5.) He broke 18th in the Derby and improved to 6th but did not seem to exert himself in a serious effort to win. Concerned that Circular Quay’s best may not win, I plan to relegate him to seconds and thirds on my trifecta tickets andprobably will not put him on top.

That leaves one potential challenger to Street Sense: the Arkansas Derby winner Curlin. After he won his first three races, one of the TV announcers on Derby Day said he might be the next Secretariat. Right. I question his pedigree as the right one for the classic distances, and his win in the Arkansas Derby, as impressive as it looked, was not against anybody in the top flight. My feeling about Curlin going into the Derby was that he was too green—he had not raced as a two-year-old and thus was not ready for the grueling ordeal that is Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. Curlin closed nicely in the Derby but still couldn’t get past Hard Spun for second, even though Hard Spun had led all the way.

In a smaller, less hectic field on Saturday, I would be surprised if Curlin doesn’t run better than he did two weeks ago and make good race of this. A repeat of his Arkansas Derby win, coupled with an off day by Street Sense, could put him in the winner’s circle. Based on pedigree, he probably would enjoy an afternoon rainstorm.

Jockey Calvin Borel doesn’t have a lot of experience at Pimlico, and Street Sense runs the risk of being a horse for the Churchill Downs course—his two best races have been there. It is now assumed that Street Sense likes coming up the rail on the inside more than going to the outside as he tried clumsily to do in the Tampa Bay Derby and the Blue Grass. So look for Borel to move from his outside post position down to the rail and attempt to replicate his late-kick Derby run on the inside of the track. Street Sense will need the kind of racing luck he had in the Derby. Overall, he has established himself as a very talented, very fast horse. He has never finished out of the money in eight career starts and has not been worse than second since October 2006. In terms of Beyer numbers, which rate horses’ relative performances under different conditions, his best two races—a 108 in the Breeders Cup Juvenile and a 110 in the Kentucky Derby—are both higher than any Beyer by any other horse in the race. This “Double Top” Beyer is usually a significant handicapping key to a race.

But Street Sense is capable of disappointment, as he showed in losing the Blue Grass with a dismal 93. The Blue Grass was run over Keeneland’s polytrack race course, where Beyer figures have proven to be unpredictable and not reliable. Andrew Beyer himself seems to be groping with the polytrack and has written numerous columns denouncing it. Excluding the polytrack race, Street Sense’s last three Beyers are 108, 102, and 110. Clearly he has shown that he has improved as a three-year-old over what he was at two. The way he won the Derby showed a confident, willing horse, as he passed 19 contenders to draw off in the stretch.

Having been so strong for Street Sense in the Derby, and having my opinion validated by a most impressive result, it would folly for me to abandon him now. If I had seen some flaw, or if some hot new thing that missed the Derby by a fluke were in this race, perhaps I could justify it. But you can’t jump off your own pick for no good reason and call yourself a man. Or a horsepicker.

I will not do it. I am going to go all the way with this colt and try to pick up the money from the people who will play Curlin and Hard Spun. I will use Circular Quay again in the triples, as I did in the Derby, as I think he will improve. I think Curlin will get by Hard Spun to finish third this time.

My prediction: 8 (Street Sense)-3 (Circular Quay)-4 (Curlin).