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Saturday, May 21, 2011
New shooters try to crash Preakness

By Claire Novak
Special to ESPN.com

BALTIMORE, Md. -- Trainers worry about whether their horses are eating well, whether they're handling the trip to Pimlico Race Course, and if they're recovering from minor bumps and bruises incurred in a rough Kentucky Derby run. But most of all, trainers worry about the two-week turnaround from the Derby to the Preakness.

Hyperbole surrounds the supposed difficulty Derby contenders face when wheeling back in the Preakness. In almost every other scenario, modern trainers give their horses much more time between races -- the preferred window is about four weeks. Only the archaic spacing of the historic Triple Crown remains.

What many people fail to realize is that runners who come from the first race to run in the second actually fare extremely well. Of the past 30 Derby winners alone, 19 finished in the money in the Preakness. Ten took both of the first two jewels in the Triple Crown. In the last decade, 23 of 30 Preakness trifecta spots have been filled by horses that last raced in Kentucky.

"I was shocked by that statistic," said Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito, who saddles eighth-place Derby finisher Dialed In. "And you would say, 'Jeez, it's only two weeks!' It's mind-boggling, because it goes against everything you think of as a trainer."

Not only Derby winners fare well from the quick turnaround. In fact, Zito's lone Preakness victor, Louis Quatorze, ran 16th in the first leg of the Triple Crown in 1996 but came back to take the second leg by 3¼ lengths. "Obviously you have Bernardini [2006] and a few other horses that didn't run in the Derby that won here," Zito said, also referring to Red Bullet (2000) and the filly Rachel Alexandra (2009), who won the Kentucky Oaks two weeks before her Preakness score. "But horses that run in the Derby for some reason do well in the Preakness. You ask if the new shooters are big threats to the horses that are coming back after the Derby, and I just think that horses are horses. If those new horses are good enough to beat the Derby contenders, that's the way it's going to be."

"I don't think there's any advantage to skipping the Derby and getting in here," Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas said. "The Derby is a sorting-out process and the horses that do come back from the Derby into the Preakness are probably the quality of the class of that year."

Of Lukas' four Preakness winners, only 1980 victor Codex came into the race without running first in the Derby. And all of Hall of Famer Bob Baffert's five winners came to Baltimore via various finishes at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. Horses who try to crash the Triple Crown party after skipping the Derby are known as "new shooters." In fact, from 1980 until today, only six newcomers have managed to take the Preakness. Of course, each trainer of these new shooters in the Preakness hopes to capitalize upon the "fresh horse" angle, even though this is more hype than reality.

"I think it's an advantage," Wesley Ward, trainer of the lightly-raced Flashpoint, said. "Any horse, any time you come back in two weeks, it's tough -- any race, whether it be a $5,000 claimer or the Breeders' Cup, when you run back in two weeks it's not enough time for the horses to overcome what they put out two weeks prior. I really think there's a big advantage to point for a race and have your competition still recovering from having just run."

"There's good and bad," said John Shirreffs, who conditions the lightly-raced Mr. Commons. "You just have to do what's best for the horse that you're training at the time. If you run in the Derby, you only have two weeks to recover before the Preakness, and the Derby is a very grueling race. The only minus to coming in with a horse that has missed the Derby is, you may have one that hasn't had enough exposure and experience in Grade 1 races. They might become upset by the commotion and the hoopla. You find out quickly when you get to wherever you're going how the horse is reacting to its environment, if it's thriving or going downhill."

Meet the new guys.

There are nine new horses that missed the Derby to point for this year's Preakness. Here's why they may -- or may not -- win:

Post Position #1: Astrology, 15-1 (jockey Mike Smith, trainer Steve Asmussen)
Has never finished off the board in seven career starts, but can't quite get that graded stakes victory. Key to this race will be how well he handles the crowds and pre-race hoopla; he's known to be a little antsy before the start. Comes off a runner-up finish in the April 23 Jerome at Aqueduct; trainer has won this race twice in the past four years. If he stays settled, look for him to be close to the front, but not leading the race.

Post Position #2: Norman Asbjornson, 30-1 (jockey Julien Pimental, trainer Chris Grove)
Local connections get the biggest shot of their lives with a horse coming off a fourth-place finish after a bad trip in the April 9 Wood Memorial. Trainer says horse is peaking at the right time, but with all seven of his starts made at lower-level tracks, he'll need a big jump in class to contend. Should be four or five lengths off the pace as they head into the clubhouse turn.

Post Position #3: King Congie, 20-1 (jockey Robby Albarado, trainer Tom Albertrani)
Ran a legitimate third, beaten only a head in Grade 1 Blue Grass Stakes on April 16. Best form to date has come on turf or synthetic surfaces, not dirt. He's a quality runner, but with a Tropical Park Derby score, may do his best on the lawn. Albarado has bone to pick with Animal Kingdom connections, who replaced him on Derby winner when he was injured before the race. Best efforts have come from off the pace, should be closing at the end.

Post Position #4: Flashpoint, 20-1 (jockey Cornelio Velasquez, trainer Wesley Ward)
Speedster that figures to set the pace leaving the gate beside Derby front-runner Shackleford. Biggest question is whether he likes the distance; his pedigree screams sprinting. Won the Hutcheson Stakes in February of his maiden score, hasn't raced since finishing fourth in the Florida Derby.

Post Position #6: Sway Away, 15-1 (jockey Garrett Gomez, trainer Jeff Bonde)
Son of 2005 Preakness winner Afleet Alex was No. 21 on the Kentucky Derby graded-earnings list, dealt a bum hand when he didn't make the field. Series of disappointing efforts in Arkansas and the fact that his lone win came 11 months ago at Pleasanton also guarantee a price, but connections have been high on him from the beginning and he may have just needed time to mature. He'll be closing at the end.

Post Position #8: Dance City, 12-1 (jockey Ramon Dominguez, trainer Todd Pletcher)
Third in the Arkansas Derby after a troubled trip, he missed the win by only 1 lengths. A second in his debut and two other victories peg him as a late-developing, steadily improving runner. Should be near the pace or setting it.

Post Position #12: Isn't He Perfect, 30-1 (jockey Edgar Prado, trainer Doodnauth Shivmangal)
Most seasoned runner in the field has 12 starts in the past two years with only his maiden and an allowance score to show for it. Ran in the Gotham Stakes, Wood Memorial and Jerome this season, all without hitting the board. Should go off as the longest shot in the field. Should be in the second tier of horses early.

Post Position #13: Concealed Identity, 30-1 (jockey Sheldon Russell, trainer Eddie Gaudet)
Gelded son of 2004 Preakness winner Smarty Jones won the Federico Tesio Stakes at Pimlico on May 7 last time out, so we know he likes the track. More local connections; he'll have to take a big step up to contend but has back-to-back victories going into this race. Best efforts have come from about three lengths behind the front-runners.

Post Position #14: Mr. Commons, 20-1 (jockey Victor Espinoza, trainer John Shirreffs)
California-based runner took the longest cross-country trip to get here, shipping to Kentucky for a layover before continuing on to Pimlico. Ran third in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby last time out and is lightly-raced with only two other starts under his belt -- both victories. Connections wanted to go to the Derby but didn't have enough graded earnings; may not be ready for this kind of competition in his first race outside California. Figures to sit just off the pace.

Picks: Bearing in mind that my original Kentucky Derby trio (Archarcharch, Dialed In, Midnight Interlude) finished 15th, 8th and 16th, respectively -- and that I only wrote about the winner, Animal Kingdom, as a tongue-in-cheek hunch -- here are my Preakness picks:

Win: Animal Kingdom
Place: Mucho Macho Man
Show: Dialed In
New Shooter: Breaking from post 6, where 15 previous Preakness winners have started, Sway Away is the new shooter with the best shot at victory.
Hunch Play: After the May 20 death of pro wrestler Randy "Macho Man" Savage, Mucho Macho Man is the hunch bet to win the race.

Claire Novak is an award-winning journalist whose coverage of the Thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets. You can reach her via her website.