Updated on 09/17/2011 11:31AM

Trip favors Peace Rules


BALTIMORE - After Funny Cide won the Kentucky Derby by nearly two lengths, he was showered with the acclaim that almost all Derby winners receive. But serious fans and bettors were not convinced that he had been the best horse in the race.

Horseplayers who call themselves trip handicappers know that winners are often determined by the way a race develops: by the early pace, by traffic troubles, by the fact that some horses are forced to run wide on the turns while others save ground. In the Derby, Funny Cide benefited from an easy trip, while the second- third- and fourth-place finishers encountered various difficulties. If they had all appeared at Pimlico for a rematch Saturday, the Preakness would have been wide open and the odds would have been against the Derby winner.

But of that trio, only third-place Peace Rules will challenge Funny Cide, and one of these two will win the second leg of the Triple Crown. The other eight entrants appear so outclassed that the Preakness might as well be a match race. To judge the two horses' relative chances, a handicapper must consider the nuances of trips.

The optimal way for a horse to win a race is to get an unchallenged early lead and control the pace (as War Emblem did in last year's Kentucky Derby.) The second-best scenario is for a horse to sit behind two or more horses who are battling for the lead and pass them when they are enervated.

That is the way Funny Cide won the Derby. Peace Rules and Brancusi went head-and-head for the early lead at Churchill Downs, running the first half mile in 46.23 seconds - an honest pace, but not a suicidal one. Jose Santos had Funny Cide on the rail, in the clear, stalking the leaders. After Peace Rules raced Brancusi into defeat, Funny Cide made his move and took command. Peace Rules didn't surrender without a fight; he was still trying hard in the final yards and barely lost second place to his stablemate, the favorite Empire Maker.

This much is certain about the 128th Preakness: Funny Cide won't get a dream trip again. He will start from post position 9, and inside him are five horses with a measure of early speed: Cherokee's Boy (post 1), Scrimshaw (2), Midway Road (6), Peace Rules (7), and New York Hero (8). The favorite is almost assured of being parked wide on the first turn, and he may be forced to race outside his rivals for the entire 1 3/16 miles. Going wide on both turns of a route race is invariably costly, and it is more harmful at Pimlico than at most tracks. In distance races at the current meeting, horses breaking from post 8 and beyond are a collective 1 for 50.

Peace Rules figures to lose ground at the first turn after starting from post 7, but not as much as Funny Cide. Both are likely to be a length or two behind the early leaders. What happens after that will depend on jockeys Edgar Prado and Jose Santos, because their mounts have similar talent and running styles. Both are tractable enough to stalk other speed horses. When the two faced each other in the Louisiana Derby in March, it was Funny Cide who went to the front and Peace Rules who rallied to win. (Trainer Barclay Tagg said his gelding was still recovering from a throat problem at the time, so perhaps the result can't be taken at face value.)

In the Preakness, I believe that Peace Rules has the edge, based strictly on trips. Funny Cide benefited from a perfect scenario in the Derby. With his outside post position at Pimlico, he is apt to have a slightly more difficult trip than Peace Rules. These factors ought to be worth more than two lengths. But just barely: This Preakness has the earmarks of a race that will be decided after a close battle through the stretch.

Though it may be a thriller to watch, it is certainly not a thriller as a betting event. The two contenders will both be short prices, and there is no value in playing either to win. Exactas combining them will be minuscule, too. However, the trifecta may offer a glimmer of a possibility. The solid third choice in the wagering will be the entry of Scrimshaw and Senor Swinger; they are trained, respectively, by Wayne Lukas and Bob Baffert, who have won seven of the last nine runnings of the Preakness. But neither colt has convincing credentials. Kissin Saint - who encountered significant trouble in the Wood Memorial while finishing third behind Empire Maker and Funny Cide - can finish third behind the favorites in the Preakness, and he will be a big price.

(c) Washington Post, 2003