05/16/2010 11:00PM

Taking a stand against Super Saver


WASHINGTON - Super Saver was blessed by racing luck when he won the Kentucky Derby, and fortune has continued to smile on him as he awaits the Preakness.

Ice Box, who was badly blocked in the stretch run before finishing second, was probably the best horse at Churchill Downs, and he might have been favored to win at Pimlico on Saturday. But trainer Nick Zito opted to skip the second leg of the Triple Crown and await the Belmont Stakes, sparing Super Saver a challenge by his most formidable potential rival.

The absence of several other colts will alter the composition of the Preakness in Super Saver's favor. The speedsters who set a torrid early pace in the Derby are on the sidelines, and when the fast Hurricane Ike was knocked out of the race by an injury Wednesday, Super Saver was the only true speed horse left in the field; he is the only of the 12 starters who has ever scored a front-running victory, which he did twice as a 2-year-old. Super Saver has inherited a significant tactical advantage.

Yet despite Super Saver's merits and the weakness of his opposition, I could not bet on him in the Preakness. I feel obligated to take a position against him, and plenty of serious handicappers will surely think the same way, for it almost always is a good strategy to play against a favorite who benefited from a perfect trip in his previous start.

Super Saver had done nothing before the first Saturday in May to suggest he might be the best colt of his generation. He lost his first two races as a 3-year-old, the Tampa Bay Derby and the Arkansas Derby, without any excuse before Calvin Borel rode him brilliantly to win at Churchill Downs.

Borel got the colt to restrain his customary speed, took advantage of his No. 4 post position to secure a position on the rail, sat behind the leaders who set a suicidal pace, and barely encountered a straw in his path as he rallied past them. Meanwhile, many of the horses behind him in the 20-horse field were getting blocked or bumped. It is reasonable to conclude Super Saver won the Derby because of the favorable trip, not because of innate superiority. He may also have been helped by the sloppy track. He won his only prior start in the mud by seven lengths.

Four horses who finished behind Super Saver in the Derby are taking another shot against him in Baltimore, including Paddy O'Prado, who finished third, and Lookin At Lucky, who finished sixth. Paddy O'Prado was the beneficiary of a familiar Derby scenario that often makes horses look better than they are. After the hot early pace, he rallied past a bunch of tired horses, though he wasn't gaining on Super Saver in the final yards. He's unlikely to win the Preakness.

Lookin At Lucky was the champion of his generation as a 2-year-old, racing exclusively on synthetic tracks. His victory on dirt in the Rebel Stakes helped make him the Kentucky Derby favorite. Bumped hard in the first furlong of the Derby, he never made the strong late run that was expected of him. Perhaps the early trouble affected him; perhaps he didn't like the mud. It is also possible he isn't in great form and wasn't going to run well under any circumstances. But Lookin At Lucky is, overall, the most accomplished horse in the field, a winner of five Grade 1 or Grade 2 stakes who never ran a bad race before the Derby. He is clearly Super Saver's most formidable challenger.

Two longshot possibilities are Aikenite and Pleasant Prince, who finished second and third in the Derby Trial behind Hurricane Ike. This was a strong race that produced a good speed figure; Game On Dude, who lost by 19 lengths, came out of the field to win the $200,000 Lone Star Derby last week.

Aikenite made an eye-catching move on the turn in the Trial and, while he couldn't catch Hurricane Ike, he outfinished Pleasant Prince, ordinarily a strong finisher. A Todd Pletcher-trained stablemate of Super Saver, Aikenite could be a colt who is improving at the right time. While Pleasant Prince was disappointing in the Trial, the one-mile distance was probably too short for him. He ran very well in the

1 1/8-mile Florida Derby when he lost by a nose to Ice Box, and if he recaptures that form he could be a contender in the Preakness.

It is hard to make an ironclad case for any of the challengers, and perhaps it is folly to bet against a speed horse capable of getting an easy early lead. But because Super Saver's Derby victory was so unconvincing, I feel compelled to try.

My Preakness picks:

1. Lookin At Lucky, 2. Aikenite, 3. Pleasant Prince.

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