05/12/2009 11:00PM

Preakness Stakes analysis


1. Rachel Alexandra

2. Mine That Bird

3. Pioneerof the Nile

4. Take the Points

After test driving all the wise-guy reasons to get around them, I'm just going to shrug my shoulders and go with the ones who've made all the news lately, Rachel Alexandra and Mine That Bird.

Why is such a big deal being made about the filly running back in two weeks? It's actually 15 days, or one extra day than the horses exiting the Derby. Meanwhile, she hardly drew a deep breath in the Oaks, the colts staggered around like drunken tourists, and the favorite, Friesan Fire, finished 18th and came out all dinged up.

Rachel Alexandra has done things effortlessly and given ample indication she is special, and for the most part the others have looked more ordinary with each passing race. Nice enough, but ordinary and not particularly fast. The filly runs triple-digit Beyer Figures like breaking sticks, and when one of the boys hits that level - most of them haven't - it's either in a sprint or on a wet track or by accident.

Drawing post 13 may be a plus for two reasons. Her price could go up a tick, and it could save her some bumping and jostling in the run to the clubhouse turn.

The stars aligned for Mine That Bird in the Derby, and maybe he doesn't have another sloppy-gold-rail-perfect-trip in him.

But what if nobody told him it was a fluke? Sometimes 3-year-olds improve without warning, and it could've been a case of him just wanting to be left alone early. If that's the case, he'll get another favorable pace setup because there's a plethora of horses that want to be up close.

If neither of those two gets the money, your guess is as good as mine.

Really, who do you trust? Pioneerof the Nile is a steady-going sort who always runs his race, but by the numbers he's been running the same race since February. To his credit, he saved second in the Derby after losing ground in the deeper going, but we still have no idea what his capabilities on fast dirt are.

For pick four purposes, Plan B could reasonably include General Quarters, Papa Clem, Take the Points, and Musket Man. A win by any of those would light up the tote board, yet among the boys they have run the four fastest races on fast dirt at a mile or longer.1. Big Drama

2. Rachel Alexandra

3. Mine That Bird

4. Friesan Fire

The Kentucky Derby was not the race it could have been, due to defections of I Want Revenge, Quality Road, and The Pamplemousse, the fastest 3-year-olds from New York, Florida, and California. In hindsight, most of the remaining Derby starters were overrated. The Preakness angle is to take a stand against the wacky-result Derby runners. They might not be as good as perceived.

The time is right for a new shooter. The filly Rachel Alexandra might win as the favorite, but the gelding Big Drama can win as an overlay. Big Drama won four stakes to end his juvenile campaign; a minor injury in January derailed his chances to make the Derby. Maybe it was a blessing in disguise, because the Derby was a wet-track fiasco.

Big Drama re-established himself finishing first (then disqualified) in the Swale at Gulfstream, a highly rated Grade 2 sprint in March, and has been aimed for the Preakness since. He is fast, he can rate, he can finish, and he is fresh. The question is how far can he run? At 6-1 or higher, it's worth finding out.

The Kentucky Oaks tour de force by Rachel Alexandra was achieved with a perfect trip and a Beyer Speed Figure faster than the Derby. The exciting filly is the most publicized starter, and she will be bet accordingly. But is she tough enough? After several easy wins versus fillies of dubious quality, the Preakness will be her first dogfight in months.

No Preakness entrant is sharper than romping Derby hero Mine That Bird. He won with the inside bias in his favor, over a wet track he adored, and made his rivals look downright silly. If he runs two alike, he can win again. The Derby was not a total fluke. He was a top-class 2-year-old last year in Canada.

Friesan Fire had legitimate excuses in the Derby - slop, grabbed a quarter, in traffic. He also got outrun. He returned with a big Pimlico work and is eligible to return to form.

Pioneerof the Nile did what he does best in the Derby, win another stretch battle to salvage second by a nose. Pioneerof the Nile is game, and you don't want to eyeball him late. But a fast horse will beat him. Are there any fast horses?

General Quarters did not run his race in the Derby and is worth a shot at a price if the track is fast. Musket Man and Papa Clem finished three-four in the Derby and fit for a piece.1. Musket Man

2. Friesan Fire

3. Pioneerof the Nile

4. Rachel Alexandra

Musket Man ran well in defeat in the Kentucky Derby, finishing third, a nose out of second place, despite being in traffic early and wide on the second turn. He didn't seem quite as comfortable over the mud as others in the field, and he got up for third on his class alone. Two starts back on a fast track at Hawthorne for the Illinois Derby, he showed his potential - dominating with a wide trip - in a race that was so fast that many figuremakers downgraded his speed figure, not knowing what to make of it. He comes off a quick work preceding this race, which suggests he may like this track better than Churchill Downs, where he was not among the top workers of Derby Week. He is well drawn in post 3 and ought to be able to save ground into the first turn.

Friesan Fire, 18th as the favorite in the Kentucky Derby, can be excused for that race. He was bumped at the start, grabbed a quarter, and clearly wasn't himself. Toss that race out and this colt has the potential to challenge. The fact that a skilled horseman in trainer Larry Jones brings him back - when the conservative and most-expected option would have been to bypass the race - must be viewed as a positive sign.

Pioneerof the Nile looked like the Derby winner on the second turn of that race, moving easily three wide under jockey Garrett Gomez, but he was even paced when called upon in the stretch. Perhaps it was the mud that contributed to his relatively flat finish. He worked beautifully over Churchill Downs this week for trainer Bob Baffert and has raised eyebrows with his appearance in recent days.

Rachel Alexandra is obviously an amazingly talented filly but is a potential bounce candidate against the boys in the Preakness, running back on 15 days' rest after a career-best effort in a 20 1/4-length romp in the Kentucky Oaks. That race, while undoubtedly impressive, came against one of the worst fields, top to bottom, in recent Kentucky Oaks history. Fillies, in general, tend to do better against the boys on turf or in dirt sprints than in classic dirt races like the Preakness.1. Big Drama

2. Rachel Alexandra

3. Friesan Fire

4. Mine That Bird

Big Drama crossed the finish line first in each of his last six races. He was disqualified and placed second last time in the Grade 2 Swale at Gulfstream, but as far as he knows he refused to be passed down the stretch and won that race. He was just as game when he held West Side Bernie safe late in the Delta Jackpot after that rival made a menacing move at him. Big Drama is fast enough to run six furlongs in 1:08.36 en route to a Gulfstream track record seven furlongs in 1:20.88, but he is also willing to relax and rate kindly through a 1:14 fraction, as he did in the In Reality Stakes at Calder. The 108 Beyer he earned in the Swale should make him competitive with Rachel Alexandra, but at much higher odds at 10-1 on the morning line, and improvement is possible second time back from a layoff of nearly four months. Post 1 will be an advantage. I'm a big fan of Rachel Alexandra, and I would enjoy seeing her win the Preakness, but I believe that she'll be overbet based on her scintillating 20 1/4-length triumph in the Kentucky Oaks. Post 13 is a disadvantage for her. Friesan Fire is much better than his 42 1/2-length defeat in the Kentucky Derby indicates. He suffered minor injuries in that race, but has bounced back quickly, and would be a prime contender with a return to form. Mine That Bird made a spectacular move and was helped by a perfect trip when he won the Kentucky Derby by 6 3/4 lengths. He'll have to run another big race before I can take that first one at face value. I'll try to beat him. Papa Clem ran respectably when he finished fourth in the slop in the Kentucky Derby. He might be more effective if he catches a fast track in this race. Something closer to his Arkansas Derby performance would make him a factor in the exotics. Pioneerof the Nile finished second in the Kentucky Derby, but most of the other contenders in that race misfired, and he still must prove that he can earn a triple-digit Beyer. General Quarters didn't run his race in the Kentucky Derby, and deserves consideration today. Musket Man finished third in the Kentucky Derby. He's consistent and might be able to factor into the exotics again.1. Big Drama

2. Rachel Alexandra

3. Papa Clem

4. Mine That Bird

Handicapping the Preakness this year was, for me, more about who I didn't want than who I did. I knew I was against Mine That Bird because his Kentucky Derby stands in such stark contrast to what he had previously done that it seems fluky. Besides, while it might rain Saturday, the conditions won't be identical to what they were at Churchill, and Mine That Bird will be a tiny fraction of the 50-1 he was in the Derby.

I also knew I was against Derby runner-up Pioneerof the Nile, who did not improve like his fans thought he would when he raced on dirt. And until he improves, he simply isn't fast enough to win events like this.

If Rachel Alexandra is able to produce a top effort despite the short 15-day rest between her brilliant Kentucky Oaks romp and this race, then she'll probably win. But the quick turnaround for her is a question. The two times in her career that she ran back in as short as 15 days, she lost. Those who know her the best, her previous connections, were going to run her back a full five weeks after she won the Kentucky Oaks. This bothers me, especially with her being the favorite.

I'm going with Big Drama. He was decent last year when he won five straight, including two going long. But I really like how he took a big step forward Beyer Figure-wise in his one start this year, suggesting strong development from 2 to 3. The 108 Beyer he got for his first-place finish in the Swale in March ties Rachel Alexandra for this race's best. Big Drama suitably stretches out in distance, and the fact that he has good speed but doesn't require the lead to win is appealing.

As for Rachel Alexandra, she's certainly a better horse now than when she couldn't handle running back on short rest last year, so it's possible the quick turnaround won't be an issue.

Papa Clem was an okay fourth in the Derby on a wet track he might not have cared for. Even though he was second in the slop three starts back in the Louisiana Derby, he didn't really impress. But in between Louisiana and Kentucky, on a fast track, Papa Clem ran the best race of his life winning the Arkansas Derby. He can contend if the rain holds off.

Maybe Mine That Bird is just dramatically improved. Three-year-olds will do that this time of year. But his odds won't be big enough to pay to find out.1. Rachel Alexandra

2. Friesan Fire

3. Take the Points

4. Big Drama

There may not have been a horse on the grounds at Churchill Downs, let alone a 3-year-old, who came close to training as well as Rachel Alexandra in the weeks leading up to this year's Kentucky Derby. Her performance in the Oaks, albeit against admittedly a very ordinary bunch, verified that. Whatever value she might have offered had she competed against males in the Derby is long gone, but the indelible impressions she left in Louisville linger, and it's hard to go against her Saturday, even though she figures to be vastly underlaid on the tote board.

Perhaps seeking some value in the gimmicks might be the way to go, and with that in mind I'm inclined to look past most of the logical ones exiting what seemed to be a very ordinary Derby field other than Friesan Fire, who certainly had the biggest excuse of the 18 3-year-olds who were crushed by Mine That Bird in Louisville. I'm willing to give him a second chance in light of the way he bounced back with such an impressive workout over the Pimlico strip, one in which he reportedly galloped out much more strongly than in his equally swift but somewhat disappointing final Derby prep two weeks earlier.

New shooters Take the Points and Big Drama also figure to offer some value, coming in fresher than the majority of this field. Take the Points did not get the best of trips when finishing behind Pioneerof the Nile in the Santa Anita Derby, and the addition of blinkers seems to have him more focused during subsequent morning trials. He could prove the sleeper if he is able to relax and make one run off what could be a fairly quick pace. Big Drama is coming off a record-setting performance at Gulfstream and will have little choice but to go early after drawing the rail. Stamina will be the question, as he has had only one seven-furlong race under his belt since winning the Delta Jackpot in December.

The pace scenario may actually set this one up once again for Mine That Bird, who must prove he can repeat his career-best performance on short rest without benefit of a wet track or what seemed to be a golden rail at Churchill Downs on Derby Day. Theoretically, he is a prime candidate to bounce off his unfathomable performance two weeks earlier.