05/17/2013 10:44AM

Countdown to the Crown: Week 20 - May 17, 2013


Editor’s note: The eighth season of Countdown to the Crown returns as one of the most comprehensive handicapper’s scouting reports of the 3-year-old scene. Posted each Friday at DRF.com from Jan. 4 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, opinions and interactive features at Countdowntothecrown.com as well.

Straight from the gate

It was flattering and humbling to receive the Preakness Special Award of Merit on Thursday in front of a room full of racing luminaries. For Horse Player NOW to be recognized for our efforts in developing more and better horseplayers, it was a gratifying “Alibi Breakfast” to say the least.

This week’s fearless forecast

Many say the Kentucky Derby is about the “now” horse, the one who shines on the first Saturday in May when the timing all comes together. The Preakness often is about the “best” horse of the generation, witnessed by 11 of its last 12 winners earning a 3-year-old divisional championship at year’s end and an all-time favorite’s strike rate above 50 percent. Some years, the “now” horse and the “best” horse converge, and 2013 could be one of those years. Let’s analyze the field for the 138th Preakness, and feel free to hum “Maryland, My Maryland” as we go through the parade.

Not on my tickets

TITLETOWN FIVE: He’s fast and talented, but distance always has been a question and his timing has been all wrong this year returning from a bone chip over the winter. With owners Paul Hornung and Willie Davis of Green Bay Packers legend, I understand why he’s running in this race and he’s not lacking class. But distance ability and form cycle aren’t his partners in this challenge, and therefore he appears to be a casualty of a solid pace and a trip beyond his capabilities. Don’t be surprised if he turns out to be an outstanding sprinter someday, however.

GOVENOR CHARLIE: While he is more equipped for the distance than Titletown Five, the Preakness trip and timing also don’t particularly bode well for Govenor Charlie. Trainer Bob Baffert owns five Preakness victories and was absent from the Kentucky Derby this year, so it’s reasonable he’s got the itch with a talented and lightly raced colt. Govenor Charlie had foot issues before the Derby and word is he’s looking better in the morning in recent days, but how much better? And he’s still just a three-time starter. Bernardini is the only modern Preakness winner to have had only three prior starts, and unless you think he’s Bernardini or that this field lacks any other reasonable options, Govenor Charlie is hard to recommend on May 18. Maybe by Haskell time we’ll have something on which to latch.

GOLDENCENTS: Reasonable handicappers who loved him going into the Kentucky Derby should not be dissuaded from his talents after a poor showing in Louisville. The sloppy track, horrid pace scenario and fact that Kevin Krigger wrapped up on him the final furlong all conspired to create a deceiving final margin of defeat. Yes, Goldencents ran terribly in the Derby. But he’s not the first horse to do so; and he’s not without excuses. The question becomes whether you loved him going into the Kentucky Derby. I’ve long had a tough time grasping this horse, who has run well when I didn’t expect it, and run poorly when I thought he may fare better. As the biggest fan of Louis Quatorze that exists, I can tell you that faith in him after running 16th in the 1996 Kentucky Derby remained. But I didn’t go into the Derby with as much interest in Goldencents as I did Louis Quatorze, so it becomes more difficult to share that same optimism for a rebound. At the end of the day, we still witnessed one of the weakest West Coast crops of 3-year-olds in 2013 I can remember, nothing compared to the Preakness 1-2-3 sweep we saw a year ago with I’ll Have Another, Bodemeister and Creative Cause.

ITSMYLUCKYDAY:  It’s been 3 1/2 months since the star of the winter last won a race, and part of that was plan and part of that performance. Trainer Eddie Plesa backed off his two-time January stakes winner at Gulfstream in order to have something left for the first Saturday in May. But modern Derby horses aren’t those raced seven times at age 2, and let’s be honest that a horse raced that often as a juvenile was not projected to be a Triple Crown horse. There’s nothing wrong with win-early talent. The $625,000 this horse has bagged spends the same as money earned at age 3, and he was the Florida Derby runner-up, after all. So shed no tears for the resume of a horse who has been outstanding in comparison to his sophomore peers top to bottom. But it’s also reasonable for a handicapper to project that he’s simply over the top and not in his peak form any longer. The wet track on Derby Day figured to be a boon for him as one of the few to have run – and won – over such footing. Instead, it was used as a reason to excuse a 15th-place finish. That’s too much of a reach for me. I’m not confident throwing him out after a sharp workout at Monmouth, but I’ve slotted him to the Missouri pile and will make him “show me.”

[2013 PREAKNESS STAKES: Get PPs, watch LIVE, DRF Live, and more]

Exotics inclusions

MYLUTE: When allowed to settle and make a run, this is one talented middle-distance horse. The trick will be to find that sweet spot to make the run, one that capitalizes on not attacking front-runners while they still are fresh and not trying to outkick the real, genuine route closers. It’s a tricky ride to pull off victory for Rosie Napravnik - trying to fit a talented square peg through a daunting round hole. My fondness for Mylute’s talents long have been known in this space, going back to his eye-catching allowance win on Dec. 26, the official “opening day” of the Countdown season. But I also recognize the shortcomings in his pedigree, particularly the damside, and that makes it difficult to make a win plunge in this kind of race. But it certainly was no shame, or kibosh on his pedigree, when he finished a neck behind Revolutionary in both the Kentucky and Louisiana derbies. And to that end, a handicapper like me must give into some stubbornness and consider the possibilities aren’t remote. My observations over tens of thousands of races scream to me that Mylute would be better at 1 1/16 miles, but his performances indicate that it’s not out of the question to extend that some if all the circumstances break just right. Fate will have to smile on him, but it’s not impossible.

OXBOW: D. Wayne Lukas bashing long has been a popular exercise in the racing media. Maybe it’s his sometimes abrasive nature with the press. Maybe it’s his past sins of misfortune with horses like Union City and his fatal breakdown in the 1993 Preakness. Maybe he’s a victim of his own success and $5,000 suits. I’ve never bought into the practice and have had far more positive experiences dealing with the man. So when talk about how poor-looking Oxbow had trained swirled around Churchill Downs before the Kentucky Derby, you have to put your mental filter on and consider the chatter and its sources. Even honest-working race analysts feel emboldened to tell the public a Lukas horse looks bad, almost as if they have a license to do so, because of a few high-profile breakdowns decades ago. Bad-talk a Lukas horse and no one will come after you with a torched club. Do so with some other trainers, and you’re breaking the code of ethics or simply revealing yourself to unwanted, scathing criticisms. Using a typical Lukas coaching analogy, there are tons of columnists out there willing to rip Bobby Knight, but wouldn’t touch Mike Krzyzewski. I mention this because Oxbow damned-near made a lot of people look really silly on the first Saturday in May. No horse ran any harder, for any farther, than he did beneath the Twin Spires. He ran nine furlongs with aplomb. I do think he was on a good part of the track inside as visually displayed by Donna Brothers on the NBC telecast as she walked the track. And while it’s fair to say Oxbow outlived all the other speed in the Derby, it’s also true that those kind of super-hard races are the type you fear taking too much out of a horse next time out. Whether you define that as a “bounce” in jargon or common sense in fatigue, that’s really what you have to weigh with Oxbow. If he runs his Derby back in the Preakness, he will make them all sweat in the stretch. I’m not sure that’s going to happen, but I will be including him in some exactas under Orb.

DEPARTING: Would it not be just the kind of curious irony that makes horse racing so interesting that a horse who grew up in the same paddock as Orb was to come along years later and thwart his Triple Crown dreams? The one-time Claiborne Farm classmates, Departing and Orb, meet again on Saturday, but for the first time on the racetrack. Given Orb’s ease of victory in the Derby and that the two-three finishers in Louisville are bypassing the middle jewel, most pundits and horseplayers believe Departing offers the best alternative to the favorite. While he won the Grade 3 Illinois Derby with ease over a weak cast, it’s the solid showing in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby that stamps him a legitimate Triple Crown-type horse. You’ll recall that prep produced the two-three-five finishers in the Kentucky Derby, and was rated Countdown’s strongest prep race, top-to-bottom, on the trail this season. Other individuals may have excelled more (which is what I use to rank the “High fives” below), but no race this season was any deeper and stronger than the Louisiana Derby. But while his Louisiana Derby was solid, it may also have exposed some flaws. He rallied behind a strong pace and was outkicked late by both Revolutionary and Mylute, the latter returning Saturday in the Preakness. But the addition of Lasix and class drop got him the nine furlongs at Hawthorne in his next bid. My gut tells me he’s a smidgen below winning a race like the Preakness right now, but rates as good of a chance as any not named Orb to land in the exotics. The problem becomes that he’ll be the likely second wagering choice and an Orb-Departing exacta figures to swim in the $18-$24 range for $2 at the expected field size. I can find three dozen $20 exacta returns to play on any weekday in America that are much easier “gets” than being right with a cold 1-2 punch in a 1 3/16 miles race in front of 120,000 people.

WILL TAKE CHARGE: The form cycle flip-flop from the Derby to Preakness could help this horse more than any other in Baltimore. Note he will be making just his second start in nine weeks, having that lengthy seven-week gap before the run for the roses. A bit of freshness can’t hurt at this stage if you have a horse talented enough to do something with it. When the track turned up sloppy on Derby Day, this should have been the first toss-out, given he barely could stand up in the wet going in the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn, yet rebounded to win the Rebel on fast footing. In the Derby, he visibly fought the footing early on, climbing and leaning, yet still had himself in position alongside Orb at the quarter pole before being totally stymied by a punch-drunk Verrazano weaving in front of him for several strides. I doubt he outruns Orb from there, but he certainly could have been in the exotics vs. his eventual eighth-place finish. No offense to Jon Court, a capable reinsman, but I like my chances more with Mike Smith now aboard for the Preakness. Note Smith’s last four Preakness finishes from 2009-12: second, third, third, second. And he won the race with Prairie Bayou in 1993. The horse from the Derby with the biggest chance of improving his stock Saturday would be this well-bred colt, whose brother Take Charge Indy has been equally as hot and cold in his career but awfully good on his best day. At what might be the sixth or seventh wagering choice in the race, this one brings some interest like the Funny Cide-Midway Road exacta in 2003 that paid $120 for a deuce in a 10-horse field. I don’t think you get that much, but say you get $80; that means Will Take Charge will be nearly 40-1 odds against the rest of this field if you think Orb is a free space on top. That’s a reasonable gamble based on what I’ve seen this season.

Win contenders

ORB: I’m not certain Orb rates the strongest Kentucky Derby winner we’ve seen in the 35 since Affirmed. Nor do I think such declarations need to be made today with any emphatic noise. But I will say he seems as certain in the Preakness as almost any of those Derby champs of recent decades except Big Brown.

Big Brown perhaps was the strongest Preakness contender of the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s. Big Brown was bet to 20 cents on the dollar in a 12-horse field in 2008, and his Preakness stranglehold was so firm that the only Derby runner who dared try him again was 17th-place finisher Gayego. None of the new shooters brought any credentials whatsoever. Kentucky Bear (Who? Right!) was third choice at 13-1 and the hardest-bet newcomer to the Triple Crown scene that year.

I’ll Have Another had Bodemeister. Street Sense had Curlin. Smarty Jones had the two strongest Derby exclusions of all-time firing fresh in Rock Hard Ten and Eddington. Orb doesn’t seem to have that Robin to his Batman in this race.

You might argue that Fusaichi Pegasus, the Derby-winning favorite of 2000 and bet to 30 cents on the dollar in the Preakness, belongs in that can’t-miss category as well. But the one unique quality of his story is the same lone-strain of hope that Orb’s rivals have to hold onto this weekend - conservatism. FuPeg’s trainer Neil Drysdale rates as conservative a horseman as you’ll find anywhere, taking his time and certainly not one to run in back-to-back Grade 1’s on two weeks’ rest. In that regard, Shug McGaughey falls under an similar microscope if you’re going to try and pick apart the chances of an odds-on favorite like Orb. But Monday’s sensational workout by Orb at Belmont Park erases nearly all of that concern from my mind. Factors far beyond the two-week turnaround are going to have to conspire to beat Orb on Saturday.

Tactically, Orb makes his race and does not need an invitation to deliver. That versatility of finishing into slow or fast paces will serve him well on Saturday. But, like with any closer, you like to see some battling in front of you to soften the early-advantaged. Govenor Charlie, Goldencents and Titletown Five, not to mention Oxbow and Itsmyluckyday, look to set a perfect table for the feast of Orb.

There are no cinches in horse racing, no lead-pipe locks. But for wagering purposes, singling Orb in the multi-race wagers and trying to land an inflated return seems the best use of dollars on Saturday. The pick four ending to Big Brown in 2008 paid $591 for a buck, so my best advice is to study the races leading up to the Preakness and craft something in that delectable $1.5 million-guaranteed pick four pool.

I predict that it’s on to the Belmont, where the capable and scary Revolutionary awaits.

Quick hitters

The Belmont Stakes picked up a fresh face last Saturday when FREEDOM CHILD (Tom Albertrani) cruised over the wet going to win the Peter Pan Stakes by 13 1/4 lengths … Saturday’s Dixie Handicap will be part of the NBC national telecast, which begins at 4:30 p.m. ET … Countdown fans are invited to join me in the Preakness infield this Friday and Saturday for the Wagering 101 tent as our Night School Tour traveling troupe of fan educators will be helping pump up the handle with wagering seminars and advice. The tent is co-sponsored by Pimlico, America’s Best Racing and Daily Racing Form.

High fives

Jeremy Plonk’s top-5 rated performances by class so far this season (Dec. 26-present).

Stakes race

1. ORB (Kentucky Derby, Churchill Downs, 5/3)
2. ORB (Florida Derby, Gulfstream, 3/30)
3. ITSMYLUCKYDAY (Holy Bull, Gulfstream, 1/26)
4. VERRAZANO (Wood Memorial, Aqueduct, 4/6)
5. VYJACK (Gotham, Aqueduct, 3/2)

Jeremy Plonk is owner of the handicapping-based website HorseplayerNOW.com and Countdowntothecrown.com. You can e-mail Jeremy your top 20 contenders list, or any questions about the 3-year-old or national racing scene, at Jeremy@Horseplayernow.com. Your top 20 may be published in Countdown to the Crown!