Steve Haskin's Preakness Report: Looking For a Hot Toddy

Steve Haskin's Preakness Report: Looking For a Hot Toddy
Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt
Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense arriving at Pimlico earlier in the week.
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Unlike the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), the Preakness (gr. I) cannot be assessed through observations, as the horses shipped in to Pimlico just days before the race and have not been visible enough to be judged off works or even gallops.

Therefore, the analysis of the second leg of the Triple Crown will be based mainly on normal handicapping methods, with a minimal amount of physical observations thrown in.

First off, let’s say that Street Sense, Hard Spun, and Curlin – the first three finishers in the Derby – all look good physically. Street Sense appeared just a bit tucked up when he arrived from Kentucky Wednesday, but that often happens during shipping, and he looked great Friday morning as he turned in another of his spirited gallops, moving powerfully down the stretch, especially when he eyed a horse working down on the rail. What the Derby winner has going for him is that he doesn’t seem to do anything wrong. He’s been referred to here as a machine, and he still looks and moves like one.

Hard Spun looks as if the Derby took nothing at all out of him physically. He appears as strong as ever and still is packing a lot of muscle. When he blew out on Wednesday, he was looking for action in the final furlong, and had the reins pretty well stretched out on Mario Pino.

Curlin had a rough go in the Derby for such an inexperienced horse and ran a big race to finish third. The question now is, can he take yet another step forward with so little racing foundation behind him and being asked to do a lot in a short period of time, or is he ready to hit the proverbial wall that no doubt awaits him in one of these races? You can’t fault him physically. He’s bright and alert and still muscled up. But that’s about all we can go on. Having run a “1/2” followed by a  “1/4”, a “negative 1/2”, and a “0” on the Thoro-Graph figures, he is remarkably consistent and consistently fast.

But with all three horses, you’re obviously not going to get much of a price, and if you’re not interested in looking for the overlay, then you can play any of them with confidence based on how they appeared to have come out of the Derby. But this is more about looking for good value at a good price, due to not having seen any of the Preakness starters work (with the exception of Hard Spun’s quarter-mile blowout on Wednesday) or even gallop that much. In fact, today was the first time I’ve seen any of them other than Hard Spun on the track

The horse who made quite a presence was C P West, a grand-looking colt who seems to love what he’s doing, as evidenced by the way he struts along enthusiastically with the demeanor of a show horse. The son of Came Home should keep getting better with racing and could be a major force as the year progresses. Whether he’s ready for this kind of competition no one knows, but it wouldn’t come as a surprise if he makes his presence felt and sneaks into the exotics at a big price.

That brings us to Todd Pletcher, whose troops have dwindled down from five to two, but don’t let the reduction in numbers fool you into believing he doesn’t have as good a chance to win. Both his colts appear to be sitting on a big race.

There is a lot to like about Circular Quay, who was mentioned in detail earlier in the week. He is one horse who definitely should improve off the Derby, which actually could wind up serving as an excellent prep for the Preakness. He had a wide trip in the Derby and enough traffic throughout the race to make his effort a lot better than one might think.

He looks terrific physically, with a great deal of muscle tone. The Preakness could set up well for him, as Pimlico is suited more for a smaller agile horse than the big, lumbering type. He has the right kind of disposition and just needs some pace, which he’s sure to get, and a clean trip.

From a speed standpoint, he went from a 9 1/2 to a negative 1 in the Louisiana Derby (gr. II) on the Thoro-Graph numbers, and then following an eight-week layoff, he ran a negative 3/4 in the Derby, despite finishing sixth. There is no reason to believe won’t be able to come back in two weeks and run a comparable number, which puts him right there.

To repeat what was written in an earlier Preakness report, he actually seems better suited for the Preakness than he would going the Peter Pan (gr. II) – Belmont Stakes (gr. I) route. He’s a small, agile colt who drops way out of it, and could very likely be more suited to a tighter-turn track. And Pimlico’s reputation of being a speed-favoring track is a fallacy. In the past 15 years, Afleet Alex, Point Given, Red Bullet, Charismatic, Real Quiet, Timber Country, Prairie Bayou, and Pine Bluff all came from well off the pace to win the Preakness. During that time, only Louis Quatorze won by leading every step of the way.

With the eight-week layoff now out of the way, the Kentucky Derby should serve as an excellent prep for the Preakness. He doesn’t take a great deal out of himself in his races. and doesn’t get upset or excited over anything.

As for his race in the Derby, it was much better than it appeared on paper. First off, he had to go nearly five wide into the first turn, while Street Sense was hugging the rail. So, there’s a several-length differential right there. That’s the main reason he earned a faster number on the Sheets than the three horses who finished immediately in front of him, and was only two points behind Street Sense.

After losing ground going into the first turn, he found himself engulfed by horses on the far turn, while racing just outside Street Sense. When the winner came charging up the rail unimpeded, Circular Quay was steered to the outside by John Velazquez looking for clear sailing, but he was sealed in by Dominican and forced to look for an opening in the pack. Velazquez had to keep steering him in and out, waiting for something to open up. Sensing something about to loosen up, he made a left-hand turn to the inside, but as soon as he did, a retreating Teuflesberg backed right up in his face. Velazquez then made a sharp right-hand turn and there was Dominican still sealing off the outside route.

Velazquez just had to wait for the field to fan out after turning for home, and when it did, he finally found some daylight inside Dominican, but he was nearly eight wide, giving him substantial ground loss on both turns.

Circular Quay, with no races in eight weeks, and one race in 12 weeks, still kept coming down the lane, and although he was out-closed by Imawildandcrazyguy, who swung widest of all turning for home, he still managed to finish a respectable sixth, beaten 1 1/4 lengths for third, and he lost more total ground than Imawildandcrazyguy. And this was with very little actual racing this year and never having been farther than 1 1/16 miles in his career. Remember, he only ran for about a half-mile in the Risen Star (gr. III) before having to take up sharply to avoid a stumbling horse in front of him. Looking at first as if he were going to be eased, he managed to come on strong to finish fifth in what can be considered maybe a half a race, giving him only 1 1/2 races this year prior to the Derby.

Pletcher’s other horse, King of the Roxy, is more of a question mark, based mainly on the premise that his connections have thought of him more as a miler type, and he’s built that way, more of a blocky horse than your typical stayer.

With that said, his race in the Hutcheson (gr. II) was one of the more impressive races by a 3-year-old this year, especially the ease with which he won coming off a layoff. With only that one sprint under him, he ran a huge race stretching out to 1 1/8 miles in the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I), making a big outside move and sweeping to the lead. He understandably got tired in the final furlong, but still put distance between himself and the rest of the field, with only Tiago’s late inside run preventing him from being a grade I winner. To be beaten by only a half-length by a half-brother to Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo who came back and ran a solid race in the Derby off only four career starts certainly was no disgrace.

It makes sense that with that race under his belt, he should be fitter, tighter, and tougher. Whether he’s ready to beat these horses is anyone’s guess, but expect him to run a big race and be a factor in the stretch. And if it should come up muddy or sloppy, although Pletcher says he doesn’t have the kind of foot you look for in a slop horse, his sire line is as potent on an off track as any line in the country.

After Pletcher’s disappointing Derby, it wouldn’t come as a surprise if he ran big here, maybe even nailing a huge exacta. But he has some awfully good horses to get by first. It’s going to be difficult, but when you can get Pletcher at the price he’s going to be with both horses, it’s worth trying to take advantage of it. Remember, we’re looking for value and potential overlays, not 7-5 and 5-2 horses.

As for the others, Flying First Class has the speed and the talent, but is a question mark stretching out this far. Xchanger is sneaky in here, having won impressively – and easily – over this track. And he’s had excuses in several of his defeats. Mint Slewlep is overmatched, but his race in the Withers was better than it looks on paper, he’s two for two in Maryland, albeit Laurel, and is coming off a strong five-furlong breeze in :59 4/5 at Pimlico.

But once again, looking at the race strictly by value, Circular Quay looks like a good win bet and a strong exacta and trifecta box horse. King of the Roxy certainly is worth a few bob at the price he’s going to be, and also could fill out a hefty exacta and trifecta. You can also put both Pletcher horses in exacta and trifecta boxes with the Derby 1,2,3 finisher of your choice.

One trifecta box that could offer a huge payoff is Circular Quay, King of the Roxy, and Curlin. The last named still has the potential to be a major star and could run lights out on Saturday, and as third choice offers value this time. Throw in Street Sense and you've got an interesting four-horse box.

And if you’re really looking for potential killing, you can use Circular Quay, King of the Roxy, and C P West with either Street Sense, Hard Spun or Curlin. It's hard throwing two of those three out, but, again, we're looking for something a bit wild.

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