2009 Preakness Stakes Predictions
by Trevor Whenham - 05/13/2009
Horse racing is such a compelling and challenging sport because you are constantly faced with unique and difficult situations. Every major race provides a different puzzle to consider, and just when you think you have it all figured out the sport rises up and shows you who is boss. There is no better reminder of this than this year's Kentucky Derby. I sat in the grandstand at Churchill that day. Before and during the race it was so loud you couldn't hear yourself think. Once people realized who had won, though, a stunned silence spread across the massive complex. No one had honestly believed that that result was even remotely possible.
On the heels of that Derby we have a Preakness that really has me scratching my head. Handicapping this race requires me to address at least six different big questions:
1. Rachel Alexandra - The entry of this filly has made this race very difficult. She has been incredibly impressive this year, and her win in the Oaks was one of the most remarkable efforts I have ever seen. Based on that performance it's tempting to think that she could run away with this race. That's certainly what the public will think. There is evidence to support that position, too - horses that have posted Beyer figures over 100 in two career races tend to excel in the Preakness, and she is the only one with that distinction. Before you get too excited, though, there are some real strikes against her. She has never run against the boys, and she has faced a generally underwhelming group of fillies, so we can't be sure if she is up to the jump in competition she will face. She also has a few trends working against her - no filly has won the race since 1924, only three fillies have run in the race since World War II, 23 of the last 25 Preakness winners have previously run in the Derby, and front-end speed like hers has only held up to win in three of the last 23 races.
2. Mine That Bird - The move that this horse made in the Derby was incredible at the time, and has grown to be more and more impressive each of the six million times I have watched the replay. It was a truly world-class effort. Nothing that the horse did before that race gave us a clue that the effort was even remotely possible. That's what I thought before the Derby, and that's still what I think after studying the past performances again and again. It would be easy to assume that the effort was a fluke that can't possibly be repeated. On the other hand, he's fit and tuned up and he looks great. The Derby winner has won nine of the last 23 runnings of the Preakness, so he is in good company. It might be a bad decision, but I can't help but thinking that this horse stands a chance.
3. Pioneerof The Nile - The puzzle here is less difficult to dissect. He's a good horse that is well ridden and that ran a good race on Derby day. He'll likely be the second choice, and he deserves to be. He runs a style that suits the track, and his trainer knows as well as anyone how to win this race. The only big question is whether he is good enough to beat the filly.
4. Friesan Fire - The Derby favorite had an absolutely disastrous race. I wasn't particularly high on the horse coming into Kentucky because of the seven-week layoff he'd had, so now I have to figure out what I think about him coming into this race. It's far from unprecedented for a Derby favorite to tank it in the Derby and then bounce back in the Preakness - Snow Chief, Hansel and Point Given all did it. Louis Quatorze wasn't the Derby favorite in 1996, but he bounced back from a dismal 16th-place finish in the Derby to not only win the Preakness but also set a track record in the process. On the other hand, this horse visibly quit coming into the second turn in that race, and I'm not convinced that he has the heart it takes to bounce back.
5. Musket Man - I was high on this horse coming into the Derby and I still am. He had a very good race that day. The challenge is figuring out what kind of horse this is. He reminds me of Bluegrass Cat. He was a brilliant horse that was second in the Derby, Belmont and Travers in 2006. He was as reliable as a horse could be, and you knew he was going to hit the board, but you never got the feeling that he was quite good enough to win against the top competition. Is Musket Man like that, too, or is he good enough to win?
6. The rest of the field - I respect Papa Clem, but I'm not convinced he's a top contender. He'll be in the bottom of my exotics, but not on top. Beyond that, there isn't a horse in the field that I give much credit. General Quarters isn't a top-level horse on the dirt, and Todd Pletcher and D. Wayne Lukas have brought also-rans to the table. Tone It Down doesn't belong here, and Big Drama and Terrain are outmatched.
So, what does that all boil down to? Do I believe that Rachel Alexandra can win? Yes. But she certainly won't provide any value at the price she will be at. I can't keep her out of the top of my exotics, but I will look for value by looking elsewhere to win. The nice thing about her inclusion in the race is that every other horse will have a decidedly inflated price. I probably won't decide what I am going to do for sure until almost post time, but if I were to construct a superfecta ticket now it would have Rachel Alexandra, Mine That Bird and Pioneerof The Nile on top, those three plus Musket Man and Friesan Fire for second, Papa Clem added in for third, and General Quarters in for fourth. That ticket would cost $192 and would have a decent chance at a nice payoff. Depending on the prices, win tickets will be on Mine That Bird, Pioneerof The Nile and/or Musket Man. No matter what happens, though, this is going to be one fantastic race.