05/18/2014 1:06PM

Preakness and other thoughts


People in our game who ride the fence annoy me. Horse racing, and horse playing, requires opinion. I have a tough time mustering respect for people who either can’t, or are too afraid, to whittle a 10 horse field down to less than eight live contenders. Take a stand, for crying out loud. Folks who’ve been around racing for more than five minutes know exactly what I’m talking about.

I offer the above so you’ll understand that I wish my day after assessment of California Chrome’s Preakness victory wasn’t, in a sense, on the fence. I like what California Chrome did Saturday. He remains clearly the best 3-year-old male in the land. But it’s impossible to watch a Kentucky Derby winner win the Preakness without viewing it in the context of the Belmont Stakes. And when I think about what California Chrome did Saturday in that way, I, as a fan, was concerned.

First, the good stuff. California Chrome fired off the two-week turnaround, and he withstood having to move earlier than he probably would have preferred when Social Inclusion forced his hand early on the far turn. California Chrome again broke the race open with his patented brush in upper stretch, and he determinedly turned back a very live opponent in Ride On Curlin, who ran big with a more helpful ride after being subjected to an absurd journey in the Derby. And not insignificantly, California Chrome ran fast enough in the Preakness to earn a 105 Beyer Figure, which makes the historically low 97 Beyer he received in the Derby look even more like an aberration.

Now, for the causes for concern vis a vis California Chrome, and completing a Triple Crown sweep in the Belmont. First and foremost, despite (or maybe because of) getting a good Beyer and gamely turning back a colt who ran the race of his life, I had the strong sense that by the end of the Preakness, California Chrome had emptied his tank. That doesn’t mean he can’t or won’t rebound in the three weeks between the Preakness and Belmont. But I thought California Chrome had something left in the tank at the end of the Derby, and I did not feel that way at the end of the Preakness.

Then, there is the matter of the Belmont’s 12-furlong distance. I understand that it is in California Chrome’s favor that he is the kind of horse who can rate and rate, and then suddenly put distance between himself and everyone else with a burst of speed in upper stretch. Still, I have real doubts as to whether California Chrome wants any part of 12 furlongs. Okay, you can say that about almost every American dirt horse today. But I think California Chrome is, at heart, an 8 1/2- to 9-furlong horse.

Finally, the “new” horses pointing to the Belmont are much better than the “new” faces we saw in the Preakness. I thought from the moment the Derby was over that Wicked Strong would be a handful in the Belmont. I still do.

A couple of other quick Preakness thoughts:

Ride On Curlin can be a major player in the Belmont, too.

What was it about Social Inclusion’s performance in the Preakness (a tired third, beaten eight lengths) that encourages his connections to go on to the Belmont? If he was only given the chance to develop at his own pace – doesn’t he fact that he was very rattled before the start of the Preakness and Wood Memorial say he’s not ready for this yet? – Social Inclusion could become a good horse. Now, who knows?

Poor Ria Antonia. Not only was she brutally overmatched in the Preakness, she then ran off early to contest the pace when the whole “point” of her being in the race was for her to close and maybe pick up some pieces. Yeesh.

Other Preakness weekend notes:

Untapable, who is currently the best 3-year-old filly by a margin so large it’s difficult to quantify, can’t be everywhere, and in every race. So when she isn’t there, it creates opportunities for lesser lights to have their day. That was the story of the Black Eyed Susan. Stopchargingmaria was determined in victory and was winning her third graded race from only eight starts. But even when Untapable isn’t there, she still is, in a way. Untapable’s absence Friday only underscored how limited Stopchargingmaria really is. I mean, horses are supposed to improve as they mature, but Stopchargingmaria hasn’t progressed Beyer-wise at all from the start of her career last summer. The 85 Beyer she got for the Black Eyed Susan, her best of the year so far, matched the Beyer she got in her debut win at Saratoga.

Fans dig deep closers, and in that regard, Revolutionary is a crowd pleaser. And thanks to a fantastic setup, Revolutionary made a few more fans with his rally from another county to win the Pimlico Special. But as much as folks might like his style, we need a little perspective here. On Friday, Revolutionary only won narrowly from Prayer for Relief. Prayer for Relief has been a terrific earner. He has now banked almost $1.7 million, which is testament to what a decent horse can do in today’s game. I’d love to own him. But Prayer for Relief has never, ever, been even remotely confused with a leading divisional member. And Revolutionary, great setup and all, only beat him by a neck.

What else can you say about Ben’s Cat? Friday’s McKay sprint was his 26th win from 39 career starts. Ben’s Cat isn’t a great horse. But he is great at what he does.

It appears that the call from Pimlico management two days before the Preakness to put about a month between the Triple Crown races has fallen flat with the general public. Thankfully. Racing fans understand that sweeping the Triple Crown is supposed to be extremely difficult, and actually prefer it that way. It was heartening to see a general rejection of the concept of “dumbing down” the Triple Crown by extending the time between races, which would certainly lessen the degree of difficulty for a sweep. Racing people know there are some racing traditions you can tinker with, and others you should never mess with. The Triple Crown falls in the latter category.

Clearly, a significant factor in Pimlico’s call – a point confirmed in Maryland Jockey Club President and COO Tom Chukas Jr.’s meeting with the media Saturday afternoon – is the track’s concern that its supporting stakes on Preakness weekend are not attracting horses the way Pimlico management believes they should be.

There is reason for that, and it is only partly due to the two-week turnaround between Kentucky Derby weekend and Preakness weekend. In almost every instance, the supporting stakes at Pimlico on Preakness weekend virtually mirror Churchill’s supporting Derby stakes. And in almost every instance, the races at Pimlico are not as lucrative, nor as highly ranked, as their counterparts at Churchill. For example:

Churchill has the Kentucky Oaks, a Grade 1, $1 million race at nine furlongs for 3-year-old fillies. Pimlico has the Black Eyed Susan, a Grade 2, $500,000 race at nine furlongs for 3-year-old fillies.

Churchill has the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic, a Grade 1, $500,000 race at nine furlongs for male turf horses. Pimlico has the Dixie, a Grade 2, $400,000 race 8.5 furlongs for male turf horses.

Churchill has the Churchill Downs Stakes, a Grade 2, $400,000 race at seven furlongs for male sprinters. Pimlico has the Maryland Sprint, a Grade 3, $150,000 race at six furlongs for male sprinters.

Churchill has the Humana Distaff, a Grade 1, $300,000 race at seven furlongs for female sprinters. Pimlico has the Skipat Stakes, an ungraded, $100,000 race at six furlongs for female sprinters.

Churchill has the American Turf, a Grade 2, $250,000 race at 8.5 furlongs for 3-year-old make turfers. Pimlico has the James Murphy, an ungraded, $100,000 race at 8 furlongs for 3-year-old male turfers.

Churchill has the Eight Belles Stakes, a Grade 3, $175,000 race at seven furlongs for 3-year-old filly sprinters. Pimlico has the Miss Preakness, an ungraded, $100,000 race at six furlongs for 3-year-old filly sprinters.

I could go on – Churchill’s Twin Spires Turf Sprint is greater than Pimlico’s Jim McKay Turf Sprint, Churchill’s Edgewood is greater than Pimlico’s Hilltop – but the point is clear. Pimlico’s supporting stakes just aren’t as good, or as attractive to any rational horseman. Until Pimlico throws a ton of money into its supporting Preakness weekend stakes, which in time might attract better fields and result in higher rankings from the North American Graded Stakes Committee, it can’t blame a short turnaround for why their stakes aren’t attracting fields of comparable quality to their counterparts at Churchill.

Instead of monkeying with the Triple Crown in the hopes of also improving its supporting stakes program, perhaps Pimlico management should get a little creative, and really make an effort to distinguish its Preakness weekend supporting stakes. I’ll toss out a couple of suggestions below. I’m not saying that these are the right solutions, or the only ones, but they could give Pimlico a chance to improve their otherwise mundane Preakness weekend stakes schedule:

Cut the Dixie back to a mile and promote it as the East’s premier early spring objective for turf milers.

Between the Kentucky Oaks on the front end, and the Acorn and Mother Goose on the back end, the Black Eyed Susan is lost. Move it to the turf, make it the biggest spring destination for 3-year-old filly turfers, which in turn would make it a natural prelude to the new and very rich Belmont Oaks.

Consolidate the Maryland Sprint and Jim McKay, run it as a turf sprint, give it a little extra cash, and it could become the East’s top early season grass sprint.

And finally, really commit to the Pimlico Special. Axe a couple of the extraneous hundred grand stakes (does anyone really need the Skipat and the Sir Barton?), and make the Pimlico Special at least a $500,000 race that horsemen can bank on being run every year.