Updated on 09/16/2011 7:23AM

It can't happen here (bet on it)


BALTIMORE - When War Emblem crossed the finish line at Churchill Downs, I felt as stupid as I have at any moment of my gambling life. I am an apostle of speed figures, and this colt had a speed figure that towered over those of his rivals in the Kentucky Derby. Yet I didn't pick him to win, didn't bet him at 20-1, and didn't even respect him as a serious contender.

When he runs in the Preakness, War Emblem will have two superior figures that again give him a substantial edge over his competition. Have I learned a lesson?

Of course not. I will bet against him at Pimlico for basically the same reason I did at Churchill Downs, only this time the logic will prove correct. Medaglia d'Oro, the fourth-place finisher in the Derby, is going to win at Pimlico Saturday.

Most serious handicappers dismissed War Emblem in the Derby because he had won his previous race, the Illinois Derby, by leading all the way after setting a moderate early pace. Front-runners often run unusually fast when they benefit from such favorable circumstances, but they aren't nearly as effective when they are subjected to early pressure.

I instinctively wager against horses with standout figures earned through an easy trip, because the public always overbets them. A horse with a Beyer Speed Figure of 112 and an eight-point edge over his nearest rival will invariably be a short-priced favorite. But in the extraordinary case when the horse fitting that description was 20-1, taking a contrarian stand against him was absurd.

Besides, I joined most of the betting public in misjudging the way the Derby was going to be run. It seemed logical to assume that the early pace would be hot because that is the way the Derby is usually run, foiling every front-runner since 1988. With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that many jockeys were committed to rate speed horses (such as Came Home) and only Proud Citizen might make an all-out challenge to keep War Emblem from going to the front. War Emblem had a plausible enough chance to get an unpressured lead that he could have been bet.

But War Emblem's chance of getting a favorable setup in the Preakness is almost nil. None of his rivals is going to ignore him this time. Proud Citizen's trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, will surely not permit his arch rival Bob Baffert to win the second leg of the Triple Crown without a fight. Booklet, who skipped the Derby, is a fast, one-dimensional front-runner, and his trainer, John Ward, declared, "Booklet will have the ability to control the race." Another entrant, Menacing Dennis, is a speedy sprinter and, while he has no chance to win, he will make an impact on the early pace.

War Emblem can't possibly win the Preakness the way he captured the Illinois and Kentucky Derbies. If he gets involved in an all-out fight for the early lead, he will almost certainly be committing tactical suicide.

Couldn't jockey Victor Espinoza adjust War Emblem's style and secure a good trip - say, by stalking an early battle involving Proud Citizen, Booklet, and Menacing Dennis? Yes, that is conceivable. But War Emblem has not given the impression to date that he is a push-button horse, and Baffert doesn't want to change his style now. In everyday races, horses in War Emblem's situation fail much more often than not.

Although War Emblem is obviously vulnerable, few of his 12 rivals have convincing credentials. Derby runner-up Proud Citizen isn't going to turn the tables if he, too, is going to be part of a hot pace in the Preakness. Booklet doesn't have the necessary stamina. Harlan's Holiday gave a disappointing performance as the Derby favorite. I can make a case only for Medaglia d'Oro.

After winning the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita and losing the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct by a head, Medaglia d'Oro came into the Derby as a strong contender; the only knock against him was his lack of experience. He got plenty of that at Churchill Downs. He broke a bit tardily and was caught in traffic that prevented him to getting close to the early leaders. As War Emblem, Proud Citizen, and Perfect Drift proceeded to run 1-2-3 all the way around the track, the only horse gaining in the stretch was Medaglia d'Oro.

Because Medaglia d'Oro has a versatile running style, a good finishing kick, and jockey Jerry Bailey on his back, even the densest of handicappers should be able to deduce that he can benefit from a favorable trip and defeat War Emblem Saturday.