05/17/2012 9:31PM

Countdown to the Crown: Week 20 - May 17, 2012


Countdown to the Crown returns for a seventh season online as one of the most comprehensive handicapper’s scouting reports of the 3-year-old scene. Posted each Friday at DRF.com from Jan. 6 through the Belmont Stakes, Countdown keeps you apprised of the rising stars of the 3-year-old class from the maiden ranks through the Grade 1 stakes. You can access daily updates and interactive features at Countdowntothecrown.com as well.

3 things you won’t read anywhere else

Opinions are like a ride aboard Kegasus. Depending on which angle you look at it, it either looks half-right or half-oh-so-wrong.

1. The Derby exacta hasn’t repeated in Baltimore since Charismatic and Menifee in 1999, but the 2012 edition might be the most logical repeat on paper since Smarty Jones and Lion Heart looked formidable in 2004, only to wind up first and fourth. As we’ve seen before, there are no tap-in putts.

2. While I’m a huge Preakness fan as a native of the area, even I applaud the decisions of the folks behind DULLAHAN (Dale Romans) and UNION RAGS (Michael Matz) to sit out the middle jewel and await the Belmont Stakes. Both look to be major win threats at Belmont and you only get one 3-year-old season to get this right and become a classic winner. Smart moves both.

[PREAKNESS STAKES: PPs, video updates, watch Saturday's card live]

3. If horses hang out away from the media before the Derby until the last minute, it’s more than fair to be skeptical of the intentions. Note that the three horses all holed up at Palm Meadows in Florida this year until they were required to be at Churchill Downs – Gemologist, El Padrino and Take Charge Indy – all exited the Derby with some sort of physical malady that now has them on the sidelines. If you’re not at the Downs, cynics think you’re hiding something. There’s something to be said for being a cynic many times.

This week’s fearless forecast

It’s time to talk Preakness, top to bottom. First, a look at the pace scenario, which obviously bodes well for the 1-2 finishers in the Kentucky Derby, pun intended.

Speed: Bodemeister.

Pressers: Teeth of the Dog, I’ll Have Another.

Midpack: Creative Cause, Cozzetti, Went the Day Well, Pretension.

Closers: Daddy Nose Best, Tiger Walk, Zetterholm, Optimizer.

Not on my tickets

Optimizer: Without a real meltdown up front, and I don’t see that happening with this pace scenario, I just don’t see a race on his resume that adds up to a big placing. To the point of new rider Corey Nakatani, this is the first time in his career that Optimizer is fitted with a jockey who matches his late-running style. I like the rider change, but don’t trust the horse on dirt to fire much more than a midpack finish.

Teeth of the Dog: Aggressive early jockey Joe Bravo likely puts him into the race early sensing no one else really wants to chase Bodemeister. The Wood Memorial alumni flopped in the Kentucky Derby, but Gemologist came away injured and Alpha melted down in the paddock before the race. So it’s difficult to just make a broad-brush judgment on the Wood. The owner wants to run in this race more than trainer Michael Matz, and that’s never a great sign. I don’t think he’ll be embarrassed, but Teeth of the Dog won’t capture best in show either.

Pretension: I picked him a few times this spring to pull upsets and he’s a solid individual with a win over the track here on Derby Day. You could make a case for him on the bottom of the exotics if you get deeper in the tris and supers. The Illinois Derby stumble at the start and trouble was pretty significant in his major distance test, but he gives the impression in his 1 1/16-mile races that he can handle the distance of the Preakness if it’s not too taxing early. He just seems a cut below the main runners to me, and I’m a fan.

Daddy Nose Best: There wasn’t much talk about the El Camino Real and Sunland Derby winner moving on to the Preakness until trainer Steve Asmussen’s barn scratched off Hierro and Isn’t He Clever. While different owners are involved, I never like seeing that situation. Daddy Nose Best got a very solid trip in the Derby, according to my eyes and the comments of his rider and trainer afterward, and all admitted he simply did nothing with it. The shorter distance of the Preakness could help this Scat Daddy colt, whose pedigree remains a bit jaded for 1 1/4 miles or more, like most in racing. He couldn’t have been training any better according to all reports pre-Derby, so it’s hard to think he moves forward off that empty 10th in Louisville.

Zetterholm: Rick Dutrow was fourth here with Yawanna Twist from the New York-bred ranks a few years ago, so it’s not impossible to see this colt on a three-race win streak keep improving. I love the damsire Lord at War, one of my all-time favorites, so that may extend that Silver Train sprint pedigree on the top side to get close to this trip. This one should be passing some horses late; it’s just a matter of how many.

Exotics contenders

Cozzetti: Dale Romans has had a top 5 finisher in each of the last seven Triple Crown races, so respect runs deep for anything he points to these races these days. Paddy O’Prado, First Dude, Shackleford and Dullahan make up that streak, and not all of them were considered big boppers at the time of their Triple Crown efforts. Fourth in the Arkansas Derby when Romans said he was sitting on a breakout race, he wound up only a neck and a head away from a distant second to Bodemeister. I don’t make any assertions that he is going to leap forward and win the Preakness, but another 3-4-5 Triple Crown finish from Romans wouldn’t be a shock, and won’t be omitted in my tris and supers.

Creative Cause: His A-game wins most races, and he’s been at or ahead of the level of I’ll Have Another and Bodemeister in the past. The Californians dominated the Derby scene and he’s arguably been the best Californian of his crop since last summer. Even though Creative Cause didn’t appear to be going into the Derby in peak condition, he ran a creditable race, one that turned out widest of anyone, according to the Trakus data. So what’s not to like? The gut feeling remains he’s not going the right direction in terms of peaking, so even if he maintains form and doesn’t regress, he’ll likely need the three Derby alumni ahead of him all to take a step back in order to win in Baltimore. That’s asking a lot, which is why I slot Creative Cause as an exotics threat, but not a win contender. He’s such an honest and talented horse, capable of big things, that it would be no surprise for him to hit the board even if he’s at 80 percent of his peak, which might be about where he’s at. He only walked the shedrow on Thursday, which I’m not wild about, though folks I respect say he looked healthy and fit coming off the van on Wednesday in Baltimore. Mixed vibes, but slew of talent, so a tough call.

Tiger Walk: Talented horse has some issues with the turns but when his head is on straight he shows a flash nearly every race that makes you think there’s more to him than his past performances suggest. Such horses often are helped by blinkers and I think his connections are making a wise move adding the shades in the Preakness. Picking up local riding legend Kent Desormeaux, a two-time Preakness champ in 1998 and 2008, also is a boon to his chances. Of all the new shooters, this is the one who could be in the trifecta.

Win contenders

Went the Day Well: This upstart ran one of the most creditable races in the Derby and he figures to be a major force at Old Hilltop. Long gone is that 30-1 price in the Derby, no doubt, so value players will have a hard time grappling with his usefulness in terms of wagering. That’s a fair debate, but there’s no debate to me that Went the Day Well looms a huge threat to win the Preakness. No horse looked visually as good as this Proud Citizen colt coming through the lane, which is important when technique and efficiency typically fall to pieces late in these classic-distance races. The key for Went the Day Well obviously will be what other horses do to soften up Bodemeister. If I’ll Have Another attacks earlier than usual, Went the Day Well benefits. Either way, I’ll be shocked if he’s not a top four player, with or without pace. At 5-1 or more on the board, he makes a valid case for a win play in hopes that the pace is fair in front.

Bodemeister: Only three Derby pacesetters since 1966 have won the Preakness: Kauai King in 1966, War Emblem in 2002 and Shackleford last year. So while it’s tempting to say the Preakness should be Bodemeister’s race to lose on the front end, history shows it’s never quite as easy as the shorter distance aiding and abetting the pace. What makes Bodemeister so dangerous in Baltimore isn’t his Derby performance, but rather the lack of another early pace threat lined up in the Preakness starting gate. Even if he had never run in the Derby, and trained up to the Preakness off of his Arkansas Derby win, we’d be saying the same thing: “Wow, what a pace advantage for a clearly talented speed horse.” Bodemeister didn’t show any gears in Louisville; he went fast early and steadily decelerated each quarter-mile split. But that wasn’t the case in Hot Springs two races ago, when he was able to lay on and off the accelerator, and re-broke like a wild horse in upper stretch after a mid-race breather. In that regard, a winning Preakness bid for Bodemeister likely will look more like the Arkansas Derby than the Kentucky Derby. Mike Smith’s job will be to set a strong tempo and take advantage of this horse’s natural ability to run some of the competition off their feet, then catch a breather somewhere between the half-mile and mile point in the race, and finally to let out a last notch in the stretch to rebuff that upper-stretch move that I’ll Have Another has patented in all starts this year. If he catches that mid-race breather, he can win. If he has to run breakneck throughout again, he’s more vulnerable given the fact he will be running his sixth race in 124 days and third in the last five weeks. What clue might we get to him getting a breather? Check out the pre-race antics of I’ll Have Another and Teeth of the Dog and see if they are particularly keyed up or warmed up aggressively by their riders. They are the two horses capable of pushing Bodemeister along as the field goes down the backstretch.

I’ll Have Another: He’s had just three starts in 257 days compared to Bodemeister’s five starts in half that time. In the battle of who’s freshest, I’ll Have Another would figure to have a major advantage. So while Bodemeister has the pace edge, the Derby champ has the freshness edge. As a handicapper, Preakness 137 comes down to your trust in those two factors and how you weigh them. For me, the decision seems to lean to I’ll Have Another for one reason. You can’t control how fresh you are, but you can control the pace. So while Bodemeister can’t do a thing about the fact that this race wheels back quickly off a monster effort and he’s raced a solid amount this year, I’ll Have Another can do a few things to bridge his pace disadvantage. Blessed with tactical speed to start with, I’ll Have Another can pretty much pick where he wants to run in pursuit of Bodemeister. This isn’t the case of a top contender conceding a pace edge to a lone speed horse and him having zero early foot to deal with that discrepancy. I’ll Have Another’s chances to run down Bodemeister increase exponentially over a horse who would be closing from far, far back, for instance. Don’t be surprised if he blows the turns again, because he even did so on the far turn of the Derby and won in spite of it. The Pimlico stretch is only 70-odd feet shorter than the run at Churchill Downs, but even so he won’t want to give too much away as they straighten up for the drive. If he’s farthest out on the track, it could be more problematic. If he’s tucked in nicely and has some horses toward his outside to shepherd him in some coming off the turn, he will have his best chance at straightening up and rocketing home again. I’ll Have Another rates a massive chance to notch the middle jewel, and he looked sterling in the flesh when I got a chance to see him on Thursday morning.

Quick hitters

MARK VALESKI (Larry Jones) was solid in victory in last week’s G2 Peter Pan, but the one-turn nature of the race made him capable of the nine furlongs. I didn’t see nearly enough to think he’s a 12-furlong Belmont Stakes horse. Late-running STREET LIFE (Chad Brown) may have earned a Belmont start as a run-all-day type, but that kind of horse rarely wins the white carnations … Bob Baffert’s recent business divorce with jockey Martin Garcia may have been news this week, but anyone who watched the Santa Anita meeting saw more and more prime mounts going to Rafael Bejarano … For all the propaganda and flak caused and heaped at Kendall Hansen, his choice to point speedy HANSEN (Mike Maker) toward the Woody Stephens Stakes on the Belmont Stakes undercard is one of the smartest, humblest moves you could ask for when campaigning a talented horse like this ... Saturday’s race 4 allowance route at Belmont could serve as a prep for the Belmont Stakes in three weeks. Among those in the field are Jerome Stakes third STIRRED UP (Bob Baffert).