Forecast Calls for Frantic Finish at Pimlico
After Mine That Bird surprised the racing world with one of the great upsets in Kentucky Derby history, an onlooker at Churchill Downs quipped, "There will surely be three different winners of the Triple Crown races now."
Is Mine That Bird really that good, or did racing luck, track conditions and a masterful, rail-skimming ride by jockey Calvin Borel make all the difference?
We'll find out Saturday in the 134th running of the Preakness Stakes, as the race setup takes on an entirely different perspective. Several talented contenders face off against the Derby winner, and Borel left Mine That Bird to ride super-filly Rachel Alexandra.
Fillies have a checkered record when taking on their male counterparts in Classic races. Winning Colors and Genuine Risk failed in the Preakness after gallant Derby wins.
The last filly to wear the winner's blanket of Black-Eyed Susans was Nellie Morse in 1924. That's a lot of history for Rachel Alexandra to overcome.
The daughter of hot new sire Medaglia d'Oro put in one of the most visually impressive performances ever witnessed at Churchill Downs when winning the Kentucky Oaks by 201/4 lengths. Borel was gesturing and celebrating 100 yards from home as he eased Rachel Alexandra to the finish line.
However, a swift sale after the Oaks to new owners, a change of trainers, taking on colts for the first time and the widest draw in post 13 are all factors that add to the imponderables Rachel Alexandra must face in the Preakness. She will be very poor value for the wagering dollar Saturday as the masses jump on her bandwagon.
The filly might very well be better than the 3-year-old colts and geldings this season, but she will have a tough trip and faces by far her sternest test to date.
With the Derby winner unlikely to repeat and a false favorite in Rachel Alexandra, this edition of the Preakness shapes up as a great betting race.
Another new player - Big Drama - could prove to be the key to the race. The winner of the Swale Stakes at Gulfstream Park (subsequently disqualified and placed second) sports an impressive record, has plenty of early speed and breaks from the inside post. Big Drama will lead the field a long way.
There is not a lot of early speed in the Preakness, but Rachel Alexandra must still break quickly from her wide draw and be used early to stay close to Big Drama. She will be wide into the first turn and down the backstretch, losing valuable ground.
This pair will lead the field into the far turn, followed by Musket Man, Friesan Fire, Papa Clem and Pioneerof the Nile. Mine That Bird will be closer to the leaders than he was in the Derby, which might count against his ability to reproduce that huge closing move he made at Churchill Downs.
As the field turns for home, there should be five horses fanned across the track. If Rachel Alexandra is to win, she must burst clear at the top of the stretch and put away the competition quickly. Don't bet on it, though.
Pioneerof the Nile, Musket Man and Papa Clem were noses apart in the Derby. These three should again fight for the minor honors in the Preakness.
If Big Drama has improved since his Florida winter campaign and the early duel with the filly doesn't take its toll, this newcomer will be right there.
The unknown factor is Friesan Fire. The Derby favorite's run was too bad to be true at Churchill Downs. He had a horrible trip and was bumped and squeezed for room repeatedly yet managed to make a move into the far turn before fading from his early exertions.
The Larry Jones-trained son of A.P. Indy had a spectacular 5-furlong workout (58.40) over the Pimlico track on Tuesday and appears to have come out of the Derby in good shape. At 6-1 morning-line odds, Friesan Fire is the value play of the day at Pimlico and can bounce back to win the Preakness. Bet Friesan Fire to win and place and key him in all exotic wagers.
The competition will be contentious for other slots on exotic tickets. Six runners could very well be in the mix, and a bunched finish is forecast.
Rachel Alexandra should hit the board, as Preakness favorites have a stellar record of finishing in the first three. Also use Pioneerof the Nile, who never seems to run a bad race and held on determinedly in the Derby to beat all but late-flying Mine That Bird.
Combine Friesan Fire, Rachel Alexandra and Pioneerof the Nile in exacta boxes. Use these three with Big Drama, Musket Man and Papa Clem if going deeper into the exotic wagering pools. The payoffs will be rewarding, particularly if Rachel Alexandra falters and finishes out of the money.
Finley has been handicapping the Triple Crown races for more than 25 years. He has tipped six of the last nine Preakness winners.