05/16/2002 12:00AM

Preakness 127 analysis


Until he was clobbered and had the wind knocked out of him on the first turn of the Santa Anita Derby, U S S Tinosa was the most rapidly improving 3-year-old in California. He was fast, class-qualified, and versatile. Unfortunately, his bad racing luck at Santa Anita led to a fifth-place finish and an earnings deficiency that prevented him from starting in the Kentucky Derby.

Six weeks later, U S S Tinosa still possesses those positive attributes, and he is poised for an upset. This is no reach. He finished only 2 1/2 lengths behind Preakness favorite Medaglia d'Oro in March in the San Felipe, a race that was too short for him.

Freshened and working well since passing the Derby, U S S Tinosa has an off-the-pace style that befits a race certain to be run at a fast pace. U S S Tinosa will be one of the smaller-sized colts, but his odds will be high, and he can spring an off-the-pace upset in a race begging to be won from behind. He did not draw a desirable post, but at odds of 15-1, the minor disadvantage can be overlooked.

Medaglia d'Oro may be favored off his admirable fourth-place Derby effort, when a poor start led to his being trapped behind a slow pace. He produced a big move before flattening out and was the only Derby starter who made any impact from the back of the field. This is his third start in five weeks, however, and only the sixth start of his career. At some point, the enterprising campaign may take its toll. Medaglia d'Oro's depressed odds hardly justify the risk.

Speed figures earned by Equality are sufficient to make him a contender, and if an Illinois Derby winner can take the Kentucky Derby, why can't a Tampa Bay Derby winner take the Preakness? Equalize should be positioned in a good trip right behind the leaders. When they falter, Equalize might get the first run.

The question surrounding War Emblem is whether he is strictly one-dimensional. A front-runner, he got loose on easy fractions his last three starts, a scenario unlikely to be repeated. In fact, speedster Booklet and sacrificial rabbit Table Limit figure to turn this into a fast-fraction race that dooms the speed.

Late-runner Crimson Hero is outclassed, but his style fits the likely pace. Easyfromthegitgo is another overmatched closer, also with a fitting style. Harlan's Holiday was the favorite to win the Derby, but each subsequent declining performance suggests he is on the wrong side of his form cycle.

Magic Weisner has never raced in a graded stakes. Menacing Dennis was exposed as a sprinter in a slow route for California-breds. Proud Citizen was flattered by easy trips his last two starts. He may not be able to cope with realistic fractions. Straight Gin appears in over his head.

We know that War Emblem can rate well when he is allowed the luxury of an uncontested lead. He relaxed quite nicely while clear through a slower-than-par variant-adjusted pace, then kicked away from his field the instant that jockey Victor Espinoza asked him to do so down the stretch in the Kentucky Derby. The question is whether or not War Emblem can rate as kindly with pace pressure from rivals breathing down his neck and/or in front of him through faster fractions in the Preakness. At a price that will be much lower than the overlaid 20-1 he offered at Churchill, I'm willing to bet that he can't.

If War Emblem regresses, who will be the betting value? I like the chances of Proud Citizen, who finished second behind War Emblem in the Derby. He has been improving by leaps and bounds, and can continue to do so as he makes only his fourth start of the year. If so, he will benefit from the speed duel in front of him, and will be in great position to slip past the leaders with a well-timed move by jockey Mike Smith. He will offer a square price, in the neighborhood of 6-1, with both War Emblem and Medaglia d'Oro attracting lots of betting support.

The most obvious alternative to War Emblem is Medaglia d'Oro. After the scratch of Buddha, he was my top selection in the Derby. Medaglia d'Oro bumped with a rival at the start, checked, then never reached contention while making only mild progress to finish fourth, beaten by eight lengths. Although he didn't have a clean trip, I've seen much worse, and I would be a more enthusiastic supporter today if he had put up a little more of a fight than he did down the lane. Note that he was four lengths behind Proud Citizen at the first call, and was beaten by him by the same margin at the finish. He deserves respect as a serious threat here, but won't offer much betting value, so I'll look elsewhere.

Equality was stuck behind a slow pace, then passed a couple of runners to finish second as the 3-5 favorite in the Aventura at Gulfstream. The swifter fractions he will find here will give him a much better trip, so a better performance is likely at overlaid odds. I'll use him in the exotics.

Harlan's Holiday will find a much faster pace to flatter his closing kick today than he did in the Kentucky Derby. The concern is that he enjoyed favorable pace scenarios but still earned relatively low Beyer Speed Figures in winning the Florida Derby and the Blue Grass. It also isn't encouraging to note that he reached contention while only 4 3/4 lengths behind War Emblem in the Derby, then was outkicked by the winner by 7 1/2 lengths the rest of the way.

U S S Tinosa must repeat his San Felipe performance to contend here. If his odds are generous, give him the benefit of the doubt in the exotics.

Booklet will apply pace pressure, but needs a career-best performance to hold on well enough to win this race. Anything resembling either of his last two efforts would leave him off the board.

It's impossible to quantify precisely how speed-favoring Churchill Downs's main track was on Kentucky Derby day.

It was intensely speed-favoring: Eight of nine first-place finishers on dirt either led or raced within a half-length of the lead at the pre-stretch call, seven of them front-runners. In several races, including the Derby, the 1-2-3 horses at the first call remained that way in some combination to the wire.

Or . . .

It was a statistical coincidence: All results were logical. With the exception of War Emblem - who was the top-figure horse off his 112 Beyer in the Illinois Derby and therefore "figured" - every first-place finisher was either the favorite or second choice. If the track was speed-favoring, how did a 17-1 first-time starter rally from sixth to pass the 3-5 favorite for second in the five-furlong Three Chimneys Juvenile?

A more confident assessment regarding the perceived bias may eventually take shape, but be cautious about reaching a judgement.

And who's to say what Pimlico's track will be like on Saturday? Since April 20 (when there was a gold rail), several notations in my At-a-Glance datebook gleaned from the charts in DRF Simulcast Weekly denote speed-favoring conditions at Old Hilltop.

Bias or no bias, War Emblem, at the very least, is a classy horse with an abundance of natural speed, and he has been able to ration it effectively. His third and fourth quarters in the Illinois Derby were virtually identical (24.73 and 24.74 seconds), and his final furlong of 12.15 seconds gave him a fast 36.89 come-home time.

In the Derby, his fifth and final quarter (24.43) was faster than his third quarter and fourth quarters (24.71, 24.95). In deep stretch, his was the best-looking stride of the bunch. Can War Emblem handle sterner pace pressure? No one knows, but there are positive indications:

1. His confidence level is sky-high after three blowout wins in a row.

2. He finishes strongly; he does not merely outlast his rivals.

3. He won from next-to-last position as a 2-year-old.

The relatively fresh Proud Citizen makes just his fourth start of the year, and could very well "pair up" his last-out 108 Beyer for D. Wayne Lukas, whose horses have been running their eyeballs out since Keeneland opened. With stretch-out stablemate Table Limit in the mix, as well as need-to-lead Booklet, Proud Citizen won't have to play the role of "watchdog" again.

Equality merits at least a saver wager if above 10-1. He was boxed in against the grain of a speed-favoring track and galloped out strongly past the wire in the Aventura, and is fresh for this. He has averaged triple-digit Beyers in his last three starts, and has savvy connections.

Medaglia d'Oro had a troubled trip in the Derby that was very well documented, and he gets Jerry Bailey. Those factors ensure unappetizingly low odds.

As one who picked Medaglia d'Oro in the Kentucky Derby, I feel like I'm caught in a trap for the Preakness Stakes. I detest that Medaglia d'Oro will be favored Saturday, somewhere in the vicinity of 5-2, but it's impossible to get off him now considering how he ran in Louisville.

Roughed up at the start, which put him farther back early than he had to be, and the victim of some traffic trouble, Medaglia d'Oro was still the only member of the Derby field to pass rivals in a meaningful way, working his way forward from 10th to finish fourth. And Medagalia d'Oro did so against the grain of a speed-favoring track and into a moderate, uncontested pace.

Medaglia d'Oro seems assured of a better set-up Saturday. Derby winner War Emblem should find a lot more company on the front end this time in the form of Booklet, Menacing Dennis, Table Limit, and/or Proud Citizen. And if all that fails, Medaglia d'Oro has enough speed to secure a more favorable early position. It also doesn't hurt that he picks up the services of the best jockey in the United States, Jerry Bailey.

Equality is intriguing at 15-1 or higher. He hasn't raced since being upset at 3-5 in the Aventura Stakes at Gulfstream, but he was caught in switches at several points in that race, so he can be forgiven for only finishing second. He ran big winning his prior two starts, including the Tampa Bay Derby, and he has the right running style for the way this race shapes up, in that he stalks the pace effectively from close striking distance.

War Emblem may have had things all his own way in the Derby, but it is also hard to be too critical of a colt who went his last quarter-mile in a solid 24.43 seconds, and earned a gaudy 114 Beyer Speed Figure. But War Emblem has a bull's-eye on his back Saturday with so many others intent on ensuring an honest pace, and that is trouble for the colt, whose sudden improvement came when he began his committed to the lead running style.

That said, it wouldn't surprise me at all if War Emblem took back off the lead in the Preakness and sat a close second or third early. Considering how sharp he is right now, it also wouldn't surprise me if he was equally effective running that way. But he's enough of an unknown commodity under those circumstances to make me decline to pay to find out.

Harlan's Holiday's declining Beyer Speed Figures before the Derby were very telling, as he finished a distant seventh. It is possible that he needs a rest more than another start, but it is also hard to ignore the fact that his closing style is much better suited to the anticipated pace scenario in the Preakness, and he could get involved in the late running.