05/15/2014 12:22PM

Bernier: 5 key Preakness questions


Guest handicapper Matt Bernier takes a closer look at Saturday’s Preakness Stakes.

1. Will a Kentucky Derby-like effort be enough for California Chrome to win the Preakness?

After registering the slowest final time for a Kentucky Derby winner on a fast track since 1974, there have been many (including myself) who have questioned whether California Chrome actually ran a great race or whether he’s just the best of a subpar crop. His Beyer Speed Figure of 97 is the lowest of any Kentucky Derby winner, and if you take his monster efforts in the San Felipe Stakes and Santa Anita Derby away from his past performances, he is by no means a standout in this field.

With new shooters like Bayern, Social Inclusion, and Dynamic Impact running in the Preakness, it’s reasonable to think that California Chrome will need to run the race of his life to win.

2. Will the pace develop in the Preakness?

Heading into the Kentucky Derby, most handicappers anticipated a hotly contested early pace. Horses like Wildcat Red, Chitu, Uncle Sigh, Vicar’s in Trouble, and even General a Rod and Samraat all had shown early foot in prior efforts. It was only natural to think that at least a few of them would hook up early and ensure an opening half-mile of 45 seconds or less. That never materialized, with the only two going to the front being Uncle Sigh and Chitu – and although they went to the front, they clearly didn’t get hooked up in a speed duel.  The opening fractions were run in a glacial 23.04 for the quarter and 47.37 for the half – times that are rather uninspiring for top Grade 1-caliber horses.

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Heading into the Preakness, there are at least three horses that have shown they do their best running on the lead, as well as a few that do their best just off the lead. Will horses like Ring Weekend, Pablo Del Monte, Bayern, and Social Inclusion all shoot to the front and compromise each other’s chances of winning, or will a Derby scenario present itself where the anticipated pace doesn’t develop and one of these horses can shake loose and cut out their own fractions?

I wouldn’t be shocked if we end up with a situation similar to last year’s Preakness, where Oxbow and jockey Gary Stevens were allowed to set their own fractions and steal the race on the front end.

3. Other than California Chrome, General a Rod and Ride On Curlin are the only two Derby runners coming back in the Preakness. Can either one turn the tables on California Chrome?

General a Rod was taken out of his game in Louisville, as he’s normally much closer to the pace. I’m not sure whether that was by instruction or if Joel Rosario decided to play the hand he was dealt. What I do know is the horse didn’t do much running. He had minor traffic issues down the lane, but realistically he was never in position to grab a piece of the money, let alone threaten to win. In the Preakness, he figures to be much closer to the pace, ideally in a similar fashion to the races he ran at Gulfstream Park earlier this year. Even if he receives a dream trip and a dream ride from Javier Castellano, I’m not sure he’s good enough to get the job done.

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Ride On Curlin had an adventurous trip in the Derby. Calvin Borel immediately guided this son of Curlin to the rail in order to save ground in anticipation of making one run turning for home, a la Street Sense/Mine That Bird/Revolutionary/any other horse Borel pilots at Churchill in the Derby. As they hit the top of the lane, Ride On Curlin needed to steady and check on two separate occasions before being taken out to the center of the track and proceeding with his run. By that time, it was too late, but it was encouraging to see him run on willingly. Rosario now takes the mount in the Preakness, and I’d be surprised if we saw Ride On Curlin so far back throughout the running. At some point, he’s going to have to prove that he can beat stakes-caliber horses and do so going a route of ground, but with a better ride/trip I think he could have a say in Baltimore on Saturday.

4. Since 1984 there have only been three new shooters that have won the Preakness after not having run in the Kentucky Derby. Can any of this year’s new shooters win the Preakness?

Although it has generally taken a special horse to win in this situation (Bernardini and Rachel Alexandra), I think this year could result in a new shooter taking the top prize. The most likely and logical new shooter in the Preakness is Social Inclusion, a horse who freaked in his first two career starts at Gulfstream Park and went off as the 8-5 post-time favorite in the Wood Memorial before tiring to lose a photo for second. He was scratched from a stakes race at Gulfstream Park on Derby Day with a bruised hoof, but if his workout earlier this week at Pimlico is any indication, this son of Pioneerof the Nile is sitting on a huge effort.

::2014 PREAKNESS STAKES: Latest news, video, and more

Bayern was a highly regarded horse in Southern California this spring – so highly regarded that many had him pegged as the potential favorite for the Kentucky Derby. Prior to a scheduled start in the San Felipe Stakes, he had a minor setback that caused him to miss some time and strongly compromise his chances of qualifying for the Derby, simply because he didn’t have any qualifying points. After fading in the Arkansas Derby as the favorite, he followed that with a tough race in the Derby Trial – a race in which he was disqualified from the win for interference with the second-place finisher, Embellishing Bob. If anyone knows how to win the Preakness, it’s trainer Bob Baffert, but I wasn’t overly thrilled with the way he finished in the Derby Trial and now have my doubts about his ability to stay the 1 3/16 miles of the Preakness. I can understand being short at Oaklawn, because that was his first race in two months, but his slow final quarter of 25.54 in the Trial has me concerned about potential distance limitations.

If there’s one horse that’s the likely beneficiary of a swift pace, it’s Kid Cruz. Kid Cruz is a horse that seems to be improving every time he steps foot on the track, and there is no concern about his distance capabilities. Owning a victory over the Pimlico surface is a nice feather in his cap, but he’s in the deep end of the pool now. There’s a fair chance that he will get the race setup he needs, and if he takes another step forward off his win in the Tesio last month, he could be a major player for the final three-sixteenths of the race – and at a square price, too.

5. The rail has not been the place you want to be at Pimlico during this meeting. Does this dramatically affect the chances of horses drawn to the inside, namely California Chrome?

Unless Victor Espinoza uses some of California Chrome’s early speed (which he has), I think there’s a scenario that could present itself where the speed horses drawn to his outside all break running and outrun California Chrome into the first turn. If this happens, Espinoza better navigate California Chrome to the outside on the better part of the track, or else he could be in serious trouble. You don’t need to go too far back to think of another Kentucky Derby winner who was racing on the inner part of the oval at Pimlico and labored badly – his name was Orb. Orb broke from post 1 and never could quicken the way he needed to while racing down on the rail. Compare that to the winner, Oxbow, who not only led gate to wire but also ran the entire race roughly three to four paths off the rail. It’s no secret that the rail isn’t where you want to be. Handicappers know that, trainers and owners know that, and jockeys especially know that. Things could get interesting early in the running of the Preakness if California Chrome has to race directly behind horses and gets stuck down on the rail.

Matt Bernier is a 24-year-old handicapper and cast member of the reality-show “Horseplayers” that airs on the Esquire Network. Matt won the very first handicapping tournament he entered in October 2012 and hasn't looked back since. In 2013, he was one of the youngest qualifiers at the DRF/NTRA National Handicapping Championship in Las Vegas.