05/12/2013 9:23AM

Freedom Child, Preakness Thoughts


I find it amazing how apparently so many people seem willing to side with Peter Pan Stakes winner Freedom Child in a match up against Orb – even if the Kentucky Derby winner takes the Preakness – in the June 8 Belmont Stakes. And I say that as someone who liked Freedom Child in the Peter Pan.

Look, Freedom Child ran well Saturday at Belmont Park. He rushed up after a slow start to set a legitimate pace for a nine furlong race, and he ran away to win the Peter Pan by just over 13 lengths. But whether Freedom Child ran Belmont Stakes-good in the Peter Pan is entirely another matter.

For one, after Declan’s Warrior and Battier were scratched, the eight remaining opponents Freedom Child faced had not won a single stakes race of any sort between them. Unless, that is, you want to call the Blue Square Bet Handicap Stakes and its $11,500 purse that Infinite Magic won at Lingfield in February a stakes race, and I don’t.

Then there is the matter of Freedom Child’s occasional gate issues. As noted, he broke awkwardly in the Peter Pan. He of course had that disastrous start in the Wood Memorial which wasn’t entirely his fault as he was in the hands of an assistant starter. But Freedom Child also got left in his debut last fall, so he’s really only batting .500 when it comes to good starts. And it isn’t as though Freedom Child is so good that he can get away with spotting a Belmont Stakes field a head start. Ask noted bad breaker Java’s War how that worked out for him in the Derby. Freedom Child was able to get away with it against a modest Peter Pan field. But in the Belmont? Uh uh.

As for his actual Peter Pan performance, although Freedom Child set a solid pace, he also got loose on a main track that was very kind to speed, especially as it took on rain as the afternoon progressed. The way Freedom Child continually drifted out through the stretch is cause for pause. And really, when you see a horse win a stakes by a double-digit margin in a sea of slop, you expect them to get a higher Beyer than the preliminary 99 Freedom Child was assigned in the Peter Pan.

Let me repeat, Freedom Child ran well Saturday. But if you can’t wait to take on Orb with him in the Belmont, maybe you should be careful what you wish for.

Hey, let’s get through Saturday’s Preakness first. For the first time since he was beaten 22 1-2 lengths in his second career start, Orb will be heavily favored (yes, I know Orb was favorite in the Derby; I said heavily favored), and he will take a world of beating.

I haven’t quite finalized my Preakness handicapping yet, but not for any particular reason. Orb wins on fast tracks and in the slop, so he’s not affected by weather. A late addition or defection from the Preakness field that could impact the pace scenario shouldn’t affect Orb, either. He came from well out of it when he encountered fast early paces in the Derby and Fountain of Youth, but he positioned himself closer to the lead when he saw a slow pace in the Florida Derby, the performance that demonstrated how much he had grown up. And post positions don’t mean a thing in the Preakness.

But while I haven’t committed my Preakness picks to stone just yet, I am fairly sure of a few things:

I’m picking Orb. I publicly picked him and bet on him in his last three starts, so I feel justified staying with him at the short price.

I am very skeptical of the new shooters. Departing and Govenor Charlie are nice horses, but I don’t think they are in the same league as the best colts coming out of the Derby.

I hope Normandy Invasion runs. I thought Normandy Invasion was second best in the Derby even if he finished fourth because I believe he moved prematurely. That said, if he runs, he will be second choice in the betting, and I find the continued uncertainty over his participation to be unsettling. UPDATE, Sunday, pm - It has been announced that Normandy Invasion is passing the Preakness, so that's that.

Finally, I hope Will Take Charge doesn’t snowball as the wise guy horse because I think he’s my firm pick for second. Everyone saw Will Take Charge move stride for stride inside of Orb on the far turn in the Derby, only to get stopped behind the tiring and drifting Verrazano. I do think Will Take Charge was being asked more than Orb was when they were moving together, so I have doubts he would have continued right with Orb in the run to the wire. Nevertheless, what I found most intriguing is, Will Take Charge made his nice far turn move on the kind of sloppy track he is supposed to despise. That, to me, is a very good sign.