05/24/2012 8:16PM

Countdown to the Crown: Week 21 - May 25, 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 the riding style of brink-of-history jockey Mario Gutierrez. The good ones never flinch.

1. The 29 rivals I’LL HAVE ANOTHER has defeated in just the Kentucky Derby and Preakness is the same number of rivals defeated by Citation and Count Fleet combined in all three of their Triple Crown victories, a total of six races. So much for the glory era.

2. Saturday’s Preakness was every bit Sunday Silence and Easy Goer from 1989. The Derby winner, not favored, out-photoed the Derby runner-up, who was favored, in a race we were fortunate to have been able to see. History repeats itself in the racing game many times; this encore just took 23 years to play out. BODEMEISTER and I’LL HAVE ANOTHER made it worth the wait.

3. What a flattering and uplifting show of support we had in the Preakness infield this past weekend, educating racing fans about the game and helping them make their first bets. For those who brought print-outs of the Countdown column to the infield with you to come and say hello, I’m humbled and grateful we have such great fans of horse racing.

Everyone’s a critic

I jump right into the review section this week with a horse-by-horse recap of Preakness 137.

PRETENSION (11th): I ventured to the Pimlico stakes barn after the Dixie Stakes to get a look at the Preakness contenders and file a report for ESPN radio’s Saturday SportsCenter program. Of the 11, only Pretension appeared to be impacted by the surroundings and hoopla. He was visibility melting down before he even reached the paddock, and given his somewhat forward running style, you could tell pre-race that this would be one of the horses trying to force the issue with Bodemeister given his mental make-up on raceday. Of course, Pretension simply isn’t fast enough to take on such a task, wound up chasing and retreating to last. He’s a nice second-tier kind of sophomore and one who would be best-suited for races like the West Virginia Derby at Mountaineer in his home, Mid-Atlantic region.

WENT THE DAY WELL (10th): Easily the biggest surprise of all in Preakness 137 was this colt’s complete unraveling. I mentioned last week that I would be shocked if he wasn’t a top four finisher, and he didn’t come close. He was squeezed mildly just after the start, but didn’t take up hard. Then he was a little erratic just inside I’ll Have Another going into the clubhouse turn. He followed the Derby winner down the backstretch, but wasn’t running strongly enough to keep Teeth of the Dog hemmed in approaching the far turn, which pushed him out into the five-path and he steadily tired from there. For a horse who was making huge strides forward in every start to date, this was a colossal step back and one that makes you wonder if something went wrong physically. His ship can be righted and still have a big future as there’s obvious route talent with this horse, but I’d expect his patient camp to take some time to assess his status and what went wrong.

DADDY NOSE BEST (9th): He bobbled badly coming out of the gate and spotted the field 2-3 lengths before regaining his stride and composure. For a closing-type runner like him, that’s not a deal-breaker if you’re good enough, but certainly can take the wind out of any horse’s sails. Even once he gathered himself, Daddy Nose Best still was outrun early and dropped as far as 14 lengths behind quality front-runners who weren’t going blazing-fast fractions. This one always seemed like a horse whose owner was more interested in running in the Preakness than the trainer, and he never picked up a hoof after that bad starting point. Daddy Nose Best is best suited, as we mentioned post-Derby, to be a big-time check getter in minor derby events around the country in Steve Asmussen-style, such as a Zanjero a few years ago, who won the Indiana and West Virginia derbies and $1.6 million before he was done.

TIGER WALK (8th): The local hope had a dream run into the first turn from the rail, breaking clean and securing a spot that not only was devoid of congestion, but actually allowed him to lengthen as he needed. Traveling between horses down the backstretch, his spot got a little tighter, but he appeared in a great striking position. But with I’ll Have Another to his outside flank, he simply couldn’t quicken with that one going around the far turn when Mario Gutierrez let out a notch. Tiger Walk tired from there while never racing more than one path off the rail. This horse is bred to be a turf miler by Tale of the Cat out of a Kris S. mare, and given his past races where he typically shows a good mid-race spurt at some point, he has the right running style for a turf mile as well. His pedigree also suggests he’ll be a threat on Polytrack. Those are the kinds of races I’d like to see him try moving down the line.

COZZETTI (7th): From the widest post 11, jockey Jose Lezcano spent the first part of the race trying to find a comfortable spot, moving alongside three different runners and eventually being sent back out into the three path. Eventually he found a decent two-path run around the clubhouse turn with a patient ride. He moved four wide on the far turn but never got within earshot of the leaders and flattened out from there. Cozzetti just wasn’t good enough for these. Bodemeister handled him by 10 widening lengths at 1 1/8 miles in the Arkansas Derby, and the added distance here ballooned that margin to 17 3/4 lengths. He’s not a bad dirt horse by any means, but given his pedigree, it’s probably back to the turf. Keep an eye on him at Arlington perhaps this summer or Saratoga in something like the Secretariat or Hall of Fame Stakes, or a trip west again to Del Mar.

OPTIMIZER (6th): In a classic “passed tired rivals” performance, this D. Wayne Lukas trainee went from 10th to sixth but actually lost more than six lengths in ground in doing so. He just doesn’t seem to stride on the dirt the way he does on turf and Polytrack, as you could see within a few strides at Pimlico that his action was fighting more up and down than reaching out. He would be more of a threat on a different surface at an extended distance, but I envision he’ll be at the Belmont in the hopes that the mile and a half distance hits him between the eyes. Be careful of what you ask for, though, as those punches sometimes land a knockout. I couldn’t use him in the Belmont after watching his series of dirt races this year. Think of races like the Kentucky Cup if it returns to Turfway in September or the Fayette during Keeneland’s fall meet, if not a turf date at Arlington, Saratoga or Colonial before that.

TEETH OF THE DOG (5th): I thought he’d show a bit more early speed than he did, but perhaps he just wasn’t capable of going any quicker earlier. Still, this was a very even performance. Jockey Joe Bravo tilted him into the four path heading into the far turn to keep his grinding momentum going, which probably was a good move since this is not a turn-of-foot kind of horse who could afford to get stopped inside. But when the real running began with Bodemeister and I’ll Have Another, he was left laboring behind like the rest of the field and gave away nearly 10 lengths over the final half-mile of the race. This was an okay performance from an okay horse, who simply needs to get better if he’s going to continue in the bigger races. He appears more second-tier to me.

ZETTERHOLM (4th): Few horses looked any better in the flesh than Zetterholm going into the Preakness, and he certainly outran his 20-1 odds despite being quite fractious in the gate before the latch sprang. He got shuffled back slightly just after the start by Pretension, but was able to save all the ground he wanted. Junior Alvarado had him moving nicely on the far turn and he got almost completely stopped behind horses and had to wait and tilt out around three rivals to be four wide. He was about three lengths behind I’ll Have Another when he had to hit the brakes, and by the time he regained momentum, I’ll Have Another was sent after the front-runners and that margin became 6-7 lengths in the blink of an eye. It’s hard to say that Zetterholm would have sustained that run like Bodemeister and I’ll Have Another did, given he was beaten 12 lengths in the end, but it’s fair for me to think he could have, and would have, passed Creative Cause for third if not for the traffic incident on the far turn. His pedigree won’t get him 1 1/2 miles, so the Belmont isn’t a logical stop, but this is a nicely developing horse for the summer who may have a pretty big purse in his future. With that versatile Lord At War influence on the dam side of the pedigree, any surface is his oyster.

CREATIVE CAUSE (3rd): Just after the wire the first time, Bodemeister dropped over in front of him heading into the clubhouse turn and forced an anxious moment or two for Joel Rosario. From there, the trip played out with Creative Cause having the unenviable task of being the pursuer of lone-speed runner Bodemeister, which is never a preferred scenario. The entire tempo of the Preakness, and races with similar pace setups, falls into the hands of the first pursuer and just how intent they are in turning the screws. Attack too soon and it’s curtains for the pursuer; wait too long and the front-runner is likely to re-break in front of you and leave you in a plume of smoke. Creative Cause had a clear trip after the early steady and had every right to tackle Bodemeister on the far turn if he was good enough. Right now, he’s simply not, and gave way nine lengths to be a distant third. Physically Creative Cause looked a bit better in Baltimore than Louisville, but I have a hard time thinking anything other than the point that this horse is nowhere near his peak. Not training at all the day after flying into Maryland didn’t appear to be the most rousing endorsement for a horse flourishing to do more. One of two things is at hand for Creative Cause: he’s either flat-lined in terms of improvement from ages 2 to 3, or he’s running pretty darned well in spite of not being all there physically. He still remains one of my favorite horses in this crop, and my opinion is that you haven’t seen the last of him in a major race winner’s circle. A little rest and the Breeders’ Cup at home at Santa Anita might be an awfully nice autumn capper.

BODEMEISTER (2nd): The first horse to run second in the Derby and Preakness since Menifee in 1999, Bodemeister’s two jewels to date were products of much tougher, demanding races, as he set all the tone. His races ring more similar to Free House, third and second in the 1997 Derby and Preakness while attending the early pace. And it’s fair to say the 2012 Preakness was the best edition at Old Hilltop since that 1997 renewal, when Silver Charm similarly wore down a loose-late Free House to win by a head. What 1997 also had was Captain Bodgit and Touch Gold breathing fire on the top pair late as well. This year’s Preakness lacked that star depth to push the top pair. Bodemeister didn’t impose his will on the field as the lone speed Saturday, but rather assumed control and tried to use a solid cruising speed to outfox the competition. Splits of 23.79, 23.89 and 24.04 through six furlongs were pretty rhythmic, but none blitzing. He didn’t get that breather mid-race that allowed him to re-break like he did in the Arkansas Derby. The fourth quarter then went in 24.97 and a projected out last quarter would have been in more than 25.67 with deceleration. Just like he did in the Kentucky Derby, Bodemeister ran every quarter-mile slower than the previous. But note his late splits at Pimlico were considerably faster than at Churchill, surely some of that due to a slower early pace, but it’s noteworthy that Pimlico’s track is decidedly slower than Churchill most any racing day, including Preakness Day. Bodemeister’s leg action late in the Preakness was 10 times better than at Churchill, another sign that he was finishing better than two weeks previous. He galloped out every bit as well or better than the winner. Jockey Mike Smith kept Bodemeister about two paths off the rail down the backstretch, hoping not to get pinned on the fence if anyone made a bold sweep alongside. He rode the race tactically and gave his horse every chance to win. Just as we saw under the Twin Spires, it simply appears I’ll Have Another is a tad-better racehorse at these classic distances at this point in their careers. The Belmont Stakes already has been scratched off his dance card by trainer Bob Baffert, even though Bodemeister’s sire, Empire Maker, won the white carnations in 2003. As a racing fan, I’d love to see him move on to Belmont, but in doing what’s best for the horse, I have no problem whatsoever with retooling this guy for a run at the Haskell in August. He’s likely 1-5 in that spot at Monmouth at a 1 1/8-mile distance and speed-favoring track that suits his skill set.
I’LL HAVE ANOTHER (1st): Last, but not least, we have the 12th horse to sweep the Derby and Preakness since 1978 and a very deserving potential Triple Crown pursuer. He galloped like a million bucks earlier in the week in Baltimore, and looked just fantastic on the walkover when I saw him up close on Preakness Day. What we learned about I’ll Have Another didn’t come Saturday, but rather in the Santa Anita Derby. At that time, he was a 50/50 shot in my eyes to either regress mightily after his big effort in the Bob Lewis Memorial, or he was going to announce his candidacy as a star. The bounce-backers could argue in California that the spacing between the Lewis and Santa Anita Derby alleviated that fear. But then how do you explain his four-week turnaround to the Kentucky Derby, and subsequent two-week turn-around at Pimlico? What we now have is not a bounce candidate whatsoever, but actually one of the freshest horses we’ve ever seen at this stage of a Triple Crown pursuit. By Belmont Day, he will have run just four times in 278 days since his last foray to New York for September’s Hopeful at Saratoga. Bad shins, as with so many young horses, did in the end of his juvenile season, and those issues are long in the rearview mirror now. But they may turn out to be his best friend in the final quarter-mile of the 12-furlong Belmont. I’ll Have Another surely would have been pushed on in December’s CashCall Futurity had he been healthy, given that owner Paul Reddam’s own company sponsors the big season-ender at Hollywood Park. How much starch would he have now if had he raced all winter? As for the trip in the Preakness, I’ll Have Another actually was a bit wider than in the Derby, despite breaking from post 9 vs. 19. The way he leveled off and came after Bodemeister was a sight to see. Determination and want. There’s a handicapping term we throw around loosely called “class,” and it’s that immeasurable element that causes horseplayers to disagree with one another on a daily basis. But for my money, a heavy dose of determination and want goes a long way in defining a horse’s class. You may have proclaimed I’ll Have Another to be a fortunate winner of the Kentucky Derby due to a perfect trip, but his ability to run down Bodemeister in the stretch at Pimlico should leave you with no other impression than this is one classy horse with all the tools. Next week in Countdown we’ll break down his chances to secure the final jewel of the Triple Crown, and how he compares with those before him who have failed to follow up on Affirmed’s greatness.