Wednesday, May 13, 2009
Updated: May 14, 2:09 PM ET
Picking Preakness with a do-over
By Bill Finley
Special to ESPN.com
Usually, the best way to pick a Preakness winner is to go back to the Kentucky Derby, figure out what happened, why it happened and who's ready to come up big in the second round. This time? After the strangest, most confusing outcome in the history of the Triple Crown series, there's no sense in trying to make any sense out of the Kentucky Derby. I'm just going to pretend it didn't happen.
I thought Friesan Fire would run a huge race in the Derby. Instead, he was awful, finishing 18th, about three football fields behind the impossible long shot winner Mine That Bird. Now the horses and the handicappers get to do a do-over. There's no reason not to pick him again.
OK, so I'm not exactly bursting with confidence. How can you be when your pick got beat 42 ½ lengths in the Kentucky Derby? But for Friesan Fire, as well as a number of other Derby starters, that race was too bad to be true. Just throw it out.
That clearly wasn't anywhere near Friesan Fire's best. Over a sloppy track several horses didn't take to, he was never comfortable. Nor did it help that he got banged around during the running of the race and came back with cuts on his right leg.
"We feel a lot more confident today that our trip and the track had a lot more to do with our horse running bad than the horse," trainer Larry Jones told the Daily Racing Form after Friesan Fire worked five furlongs in 58.54 seconds Tuesday. "He's done too well."
If Friesan Fire rebounds, and he should, he will definitely be very dangerous. Don't forget how good this horse was before the Derby debacle. He won three straight in Louisiana, including a 7¼-length romp in the Louisiana Derby, where he beat Papa Clem. Papa Clem came back to win the Arkansas Derby. By A.P. Indy, Friesan Fire has classic breeding and a sharp trainer behind him.
Should Friesan Fire win the Preakness, he wouldn't be the first Derby dud to come back and win in Baltimore. Since 1986, six horses who finished out of the money in the Derby have won the Preakness. The list includes Snow Chief, Hansel and Louis Quatorze, who were 11th, 10th and 16th, respectively, in the Derby.
Rachel Alexandra is a deserving Preakness favorite, but she won't be a good betting proposition. She'll likely be as low as 7-5 in the wagering, tough to take on a filly running against males who is coming back two weeks after a huge race. While it might have looked like Rachel Alexandra was not exerting herself in her phenomenal Kentucky Oaks romp, that's unlikely to be the case. No horse wins a Grade 1 event by 20¼ lengths without putting in a huge, taxing effort. She's likely to bounce Saturday.
Like virtually every other sane person in the world, I gave Mine That Bird less than no chance in the Kentucky Derby. How could I have? He appeared to be way too slow and in way over his head on the class scale. How did he win? I have no idea. But I'm willing to chalk the race up to some sort of colossal fluke that will never be repeated.
From a betting standpoint, I am going to hope that Friesan Fire rebounds, Rachel Alexandra bounces and that Mine That Bird's Kentucky Derby win was indeed some sort of incredible stroke of luck. That means also focusing on some of the other quality Derby starters who didn't fire their best shots at Churchill Downs.
Blue Grass winner General Quarters seems to run big numbers in every other race. Though 10th in the Derby, he is a good horse and, like Friesan Fire, has every chance to bounce back. Pioneerof the Nile, Musket Man and Papa Clem all ran reasonably well in the Derby, but can do better Saturday. All four are capable of stepping it up.
Next to Rachel Alexandra, Big Drama is the most dangerous new face. He has crossed the wire in front six straight times, and ran a big number when winning the Swale Stakes last out. It's not impossible that he wins this race, but he's suspect at the distance. His best races have come in sprints, and he's never gone beyond 1 1/16 miles.
Put Friesan Fire and General Quarters on top in exactas and use Pioneerof the Nile, Papa Clem and Musket Man underneath both, and hope the filly doesn't fire. If that happens, there could be a nice payday for those of us who still believe in Friesan Fire.
Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.