05/16/2010 11:00PM

Triple Crown lessons


Although there will be no Triple Crown bid at Belmont Park on June 5, the Preakness followed the Derby with useful clues about some prominent jockeys, trainers, and horses while reinforcing the potency of a valuable Triple Crown wagering approach.

* Martin Garcia, at 25, proved beyond a reasonable doubt that he is a Grade 1 jockey who can ride any horse in any race, no matter the pressure or where any such race is run.

Garcia was sent to unfamiliar Pimlico by trainer Bob Baffert to replace world-class jockey Garrett Gomez aboard Lookin At Lucky, a very good horse who had endured more traffic issues than the rest of this year's 3-year-olds combined.

So, Garcia merely rode flawlessly, keeping Lookin At Lucky under control while establishing a relatively good position in the run to and through the first turn. Then, he angled outside for a clear path on the backstretch and willingly accepted the five-wide run he needed to rally with Caracortado as both moved to engage front-running First Dude and Derby winner Super Saver through the final turn.

Garcia also applied equal measures of coaxing and whipping while between horses in the drive and did what top riders are supposed to do: He helped Lookin At Lucky extend himself to get past a stubborn First Dude and hold off a rallying Jackson Bend and Yawanna Twist.

* Trainer Dale Romans, a veteran on the Kentucky circuit, seems to be gaining ground as a trainer who will be involved in nationally important races.

Consider how he helped late-developing Paddy O'Prado reach his peak on Derby Day. Consider also how Romans had the modestly accomplished First Dude dead fit for the Preakness!

First Dude, typically a stalker in races with moderate pace scenarios, was a sharp-breaking front-runner in the Preakness, setting relatively fast fractions of 22.91 and 46.47 seconds through the preliminary splits. Certainly First Dude would have been excused had he faded abruptly from those taxing fractions. Instead, he held tenaciously to the wire, actually retaking the lead briefly inside the sixteenth pole, before Lookin At Lucky finally surged ahead a few strides from the finish. Nice training job; nice improving horse moving on to the Belmont Stakes. Jockey Ramon Dominquez, back on familiar Maryland grounds, also continued to affirm his high ranking among the best riders in the game.

* Lookin At Lucky may not be a producer of high-flying Beyer Speed Figures, but there is not a gamer, more willing horse in training, or I have not seen him. Fact is, I cannot recall any horse who endured such serious traffic problems in a span of major races who fired such consistently good efforts in those races and, most importantly, remerged in top form to win a Grade 1 race of any kind. Is there room for improvement? Why not, Lookin At Lucky will not reach his actual 3-year-old birthday until later this month.

* Baffert, mindful of the way last year's second-place Derby finisher Pioneerof the Nile lost his form so badly in the 2009 Preakness, had much to dissuade him from trying the Preakness after Lookin At Lucky's hard race in the Derby. But Baffert measured his horse with acute precision and shipped him to Pimlico without a workout, while making a radical change of jockeys. Bravo Bob, the fans who supported your horse at the windows did so mostly on your conviction that the horse still would be there, ready to fire. Frankly, that is a point to be indelibly underscored: When fine line decisions are required to evaluate possible horse performance, it is comforting to know that the trainer has a knack for applying equal measures of patience and aggressiveness to the equation.

* The so called bounce theory got mixed results from the Preakness. Super Saver could be said to have bounced, given his performance - even though many sheet handicappers predicted another top effort. Moreover, Lookin At Lucky had every right to bounce after his strenuous effort in the Kentucky Derby, but instead ran the strongest race of his life. All this underscores that the bounce theory applies selectively to individual horses, by individual handicappers, with as many exceptions as there are confirmations.

* Dublin's erratic workouts at Churchill Downs for the Derby - works in which he showed a tendency to bear out on occasion - revealed itself at the wrong time in the Preakness. At the break from the gate, Dublin lost all chance when he headed toward the outside fence before Garrett Gomez could straighten him out. Now, it's on to the Belmont Stakes? If so, Dublin probably will be the only horse to compete in all three Triple Crown races this year.

* Speaking of Gomez, he drew post 1 with Lookin At Lucky and got clobbered by horses pinning him to the inside rail in the first furlong. In the Preakness, he had his hands full keeping Dublin from breaking toward the grandstand fence from post 12. Maybe Lookin At Lucky's string of bad luck began when he drew post 13 of 13 in last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Maybe Baffert had an insight when he said, "it's a matter of karma," given how bad luck followed Gomez to the Preakness starting gate aboard a different horse.

* Betting Triple Crown races provides great payoff possibilities, and here's an approach I've found profitable in several Triple Crown races with large fields.

In the Derby, the 20-horse field almost guarantees that the trifecta and superfecta - as well as most pick-three, pick-four, and pick-six outcomes - will be generous, even when a favorite or near betting favorite wins the big race.

The 2010 Derby proved this when second choice Super Saver won and lukewarm favorite Lookin At Lucky finished off the board. The trifecta with Super Saver, Ice Box, and Paddy O'Prado came back a whopping $2,337.40 for $2.

I missed the juicy play in the Derby trifecta, when Ice Box failed to win and bring my backup ticket home. But I caught the Preakness trifecta when my co-win pick - Lookin At Lucky - won the race while another horse I liked, Jackson Bend, finished third, and my other co-win pick - Super Saver - faltered as the betting favorite. Because it is rare when both the top two betting favorites in contentious Triple Crown races finish in the top three or four, this is a wagering strategy players should consider in future Triple Crown trifecta plays.

Specifically, even if I like two favorites, I prefer playing the trifecta using top-ranked contenders as separate win keys on different tickets over a generous handful of horses, perhaps as many as seven or eight on each ticket. In this case, the Preakness trifecta keying $2.40-1 second choice Lookin At Lucky over seven of the remaining contenders, including Jackson Bend, paid an astonishing $2,771 for $2.

* While the Derby and Preakness winners will not be in the Belmont Stakes, we are likely to see the second-place finishers from both races - Ice Box and First Dude - in the "Test of a Champion." Frankly, that would suggest that this year's Belmont should be known as the test of "almost champions." That said, Nick Zito's presumptive Belmont favorite Ice Box will have to run hard to beat his own stablemate Fly Down, who was an impressive winner of the Dwyer Stakes over the track last week.