BALTIMORE, Md. — When the latch springs open on the 139th Preakness, the eyes of a nation will be on the heavy 3-5 morning line favorite, California Chrome. The 3-year-old son of Lucky Pulpit will unleash his talent upon Pimlico Race Course this afternoon (4:30 p.m., Ch. 2) with Triple Crown dreams in the balance.
Although California Chrome is the clear favorite in the race, two Derby runners who had compromised trips in Louisville and seven other new shooters will try to deny the chance of Triple Crown glory.
Not only will all eyes be on the Kentucky Derby winner, but nine other jockeys will be focused in on where the chestnut colt will be positioned at Old Hilltop. Mark Casse, trainer of Preakness contender and Illinois Derby winner Dynamic Impact, said Thursday that the target is squarely on Chrome’s back.
“I heard a good quote yesterday from former jockey Richard Migliore,” said Casse. “He said it’s a lot easier to hide in a 20-horse field than a 10-horse field. Everyone’s going to be paying attention to where California Chrome is going to be. Going into the race there’s one horse that stands above the rest and if he runs his race and gets a good trip he’s going to be very tough to beat,” said Casse.
Where he will be in the early stages of the race is likely to be just off the leaders, as the pace scenario suggests that it will be much quicker than the Derby. Social Inclusion, Pablo Del Monte and Ring Weekend are all projected to be on or near the lead heading to the first turn.
“There were some horses that got shuffled back in the Derby that didn’t run their race, so I don’t see them taking back. I think the pace will be pretty lively and, to me, Social Inclusion’s going to be on the lead,” said Casse.
The two Derby horses Casse referred to that were shuffled back are Ride On Curlin and General a Rod. Both stand a big chance to rebound from their disappointing Derby efforts that were the result of massive traffic issues and being taken too far back based on the moderate pace set in the early going in the Run for the Roses.
Ride On Curlin (10-1) was taken back immediately from the outside post by rider Calvin Borel, whose affinity for the rail is well chronicled. The son of 2007 Preakness winner Curlin, simply ran out of race track, but did make up over eight lengths on California Chrome in deep stretch, finishing seventh, but hardly exerting himself in the race.
Trainer Billy Gowan was so upset after the Derby that he was the only trainer who refused to comment and subsequently replaced Borel with top jockey Joel Rosario aboard Ride On Curlin for the Preakness.
“He got over there (to the rail) and had nowhere to go the whole race, pretty much,” said Gowan lamenting the bad post position he had in the Derby. “When he did get clear, he did come running, so that’s all you can ask, really.”
General a Rod (15-1) broke badly in the Derby and sustained similar traffic issues in Louisville. As a horse who has generally been in around the leaders in his earlier races, he was well back in the field and had to fight traffic and bumping throughout his troubled trip. While trainer Mike Maker lost Rosario to Ride On Curlin, he picked up last year’s Eclipse winning jockey Javier Castellano who piloted General a Rod to a second place finish in the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park.
The second choice on the morning line is Social Inclusion (5-1), a very fast horse who missed qualifying for the Derby by a dirty nose in the Wood Memorial. He finished third behind Samraat, just missing out on valuable second place points, and had to settle for the trip to Baltimore. A win would make trainer Manny Azpurua the oldest trainer to win the Preakness at 85 years old.
He should be able to get the lead from his outside post (No. 8) and will attempt to lead the field gate to wire, taking advantage of his speed. The son of Pioneer of the Nile, second-place finisher in the 2009 Derby in the slop at Churchill, would also relish a sloppy track, if the track doesn’t recover from yesterday’s rain.
Dynamic Impact (12-1) is six-time Woodbine leading trainer Casse’s first ever Preakness starter in his long career training horses. He said on Thursday that he thinks it may be his first time racing at Pimlico. The winning trainer of the past two Prince of Wales Stakes at Fort Erie Race Track needs all of the cards to fall perfectly for his colt to emerge victorious.
“I think what we have to do to have any chance to win this race is to save ground in the first turn and possibly save ground on the second turn and just hopefully angle out turning for home. That would be the ideal situation,” said Casse.
Casse wouldn’t be fazed by the chance of an off-track, another obstacle that could stand in the way of a Triple Crown run.
“When you’re the big favorite the last thing you want is a bad track. It may be a plus, it may be a minus for us. I’d be more concerned if I was training California Chrome,” said Casse.
Make no mistake about it, California Chrome is the horse to beat and will be looking to shake thoroughbred racing’s 36-year drought without a Triple Crown champion. He’s the class of the field, but anything and everything can happen on the track. His class and tactical speed should have 77-year-old trainer Art Sherman and veteran jockey Victor Espinoza holding up the most valuable trophy in all sports, the Woodlawn Vase, later this afternoon.
With little value to bet California Chrome to win or across the board, a betting strategy to employ would be to key Chrome over three to five horses in a trifecta to try and extract some value out of some higher-priced horses. For example, I will key Chrome over my second through fourth choices below and will add long shot closer and Tesio winner Kid Cruz (20-1) and General a Rod to the mix. The bet, a $1 trifecta keying 3 over 1,2,7,8,10, will cost $20.
To hedge and protect against California Chrome getting beat at the wire you could play the same five horses in a $2 exacta over California Chrome for $10.
1 - California Chrome;
2 - Ride On Curlin;
3 - Social Inclusion;
4 - Dynamic Impact.
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.