The pace makes the race. If you have ever doubted that that cliché is true you just need to look at the Kentucky Derby. Dortmund set the early pace, and the fractions were far from aggressive. American Pharoah and Firing Line were able to rate off that pace and save themselves. When you give the three best horses in the field an energy-saving early trip and all the room they need to move then you aren't going to have much of a race.
The top three dueled, and the rest of the field had no chance. The horses that stalked the early pace weren't good enough to beat the rested stars. The horses that look to come from off the pace had no chance at all. American Pharoah won the race because he was the best horse in it, but he was given a massive assist by how the race was run - especially in the first six furlongs.
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The pace is also going to play a very crucial role in the Preakness. The trick for handicappers is to figure out what that pace will look like and what it could mean for the outcome of the race. Let's take a look:
The Pace Setters
What's crazy about this field is that, though quite small at just eight horses, it's heavily loaded with front-end horses. We know Dortmund can and will lead because he did it in the Derby. Firing Line likes the lead, too. American Pharoah rated in the Derby and looked good doing it, but he has run on the lead, too. If any of those horses were to set the pace, I would be far from shocked. And then there are the stalkers. Divining Rod, Tale of Verve, Mr. Z, and Bodhisattva would all ideally look to settle just off the early pace. There is going to be a whole lot of fighting for position early on and a whole lot of strategy employed.
Beating the Unbeatable
The other trainers and jockeys know that they can't afford to let the top three horses get away with setting the pace like they did last time. That could call for some desperate measures. Tale of Verve, Mr. Z and Bodhisattva all know that they aren't going to win a fair fight. They just aren't good enough. One of those horses could look to make some magic happen by setting very fast early fractions and hoping things blow up behind them.
Mr. Z is an interesting case. In the Derby he was owned by Zayat Stables, who also own American Pharoah, so trainer D. Wayne Lukas probably wasn't allowed to go crazy early on. He was sold on Wednesday, though, and is now owned by Calumet Farms. Zayat Stables didn't even plan to enter him. There will be nothing to lose for the horse, so he could get really aggressive early. If he, or one of the others, does try to run away then the top three will face a tough decision.
Coming from Behind
With so many leaders and pressers, the back of the pack could be a lonely place. In fact, Danzig Moon is the only horse that has consistently closed from well off the pace, and even he's not a from-the-clouds style of deep closer. He and his connections will be hoping that the pace does get pushed early.
If the top three run their own race then all this horse can do is hope to pick up scraps. He needs a lightning-fast, hotly-contested early pace to have a chance of pulling off the shocking win. If you think that that could happen then you have to like this horse - closers have traditionally done a very good job of picking up pieces in this race. If you think the pace will be manageable for the big three, though, then it would be tough to invest too much in including this horse in your trifecta.
Baffert has the Cards
Bob Baffert has the two best, and fastest, horses in the field. That gives him a big edge here. Knowing that others could look to blow the race up, Baffert could choose to do it himself. Both of his horses have won races after running fast early fractions. He knows he could run the legs off of every horse except Firing Line. He could look to do just that then roll his dice that at least one of his two horses is the fastest in a duel again. The advantage of that for Baffert is that his fate is in his own hands, and he has certainly never been afraid of a little speed.
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Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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