Monday, May 23, 2011
Preakness Lessons: It's a tough game
By Bill Finley Special to ESPN.com
Shackleford? His win in the Preakness defied all handicapping logic. That and other reflections of the middle jewel of the Triple Crown:
The Preakness was just another reminder of why there are a lot more broken-down horseplayers out there than rich ones. If you know anything about horse racing you knew Shackleford had no chance to win the Preakness. At least that's what this "expert" and most "experts" thought.
With all due respect to a horse who is obviously pretty good, he stunk in the Derby. Inexplicably, every jockey but Jesus Castanon fell asleep during the early running of the Derby, allowing Shackleford to crawl through opening fractions of :48 3/5 and 1:13 2/5. Those were the slowest half-mile and three-quarter-mile fractions since 1947 (on a day when the track was listed as "slow") and a quality horse, with that kind of trip, should have won. Instead, he was passed by three horses inside the final furlong and finished fourth.
In the Preakness, there was no way he was going to get the same sort of trip, not with speedball sprinter Flashpoint in the race. So when Flashpoint, who finished last, and Shackleford battled through opening fractions of :22 3/5 and :46 4/5, Shackleford had to be done. Right?
Instead, he gamely held off Animal Kingdom to win by a half-length. Go figure.
Sometimes the outcomes of horse races defy explanation. Mine That Bird winning the Kentucky Derby is example No. 1. Shackleford is a lot better horse than Mine That Bird, but, still, how did he win the Preakness? I have no idea.
It is so refreshing to have trainers and owners among this Triple Crown group that actually believe in running their horses. A year after not a single horse competed in all three Triple Crown races, it looks like Shackleford, Animal Kingdom and Mucho Macho Man are prepared to tackle the entire series. Good for Dale Romans, Graham Motion, Kathy Ritvo and their owners. Great horses run in great races and the Belmont is a classic event. It's where these horses belong, not stuck in their stalls being pampered by overly cautious connections.
It's impossible to say what would have happened had he run, but I have to believe that with the way the Preakness played out Nehro would have won. He was closer to the pace in the Derby than Animal Kingdom was and would have likely been in perfect position to pounce on Shackleford and get by him. Animal Kingdom ran well, but was just too far back early to catch Shackleford. Nehro wouldn't have had the same problem.
Kool-Aid drinker Ahmad Zayat got caught up in the "race horses shouldn't actually race" mentality of modern times and it might have cost him a Classic win.
I once wrote that this looked like one of the best crops of 3-year-olds in years. Wow, was I wrong. The glamour group consisted of Uncle Mo, The Factor, To Honor and Serve and Dialed In, any one of which looked ready to become racing's next superstar. For various reasons, Uncle Mo, The Factor and To Honor and Serve didn't even make it to the Kentucky Derby after underachieving in preps. Now, it appears that Dialed In was vastly overrated. After a pace compromised trip in the Derby, he deserved one more chance in the Preakness. Instead of redeeming himself, he finished a non-threatening fourth after sitting off fast fractions. It appears he's just not that good.
That isn't meant as a knock on Animal Kingdom and Shackleford, who have worked their way to the top of the division. They are two good horses, two good horses that are the leaders of a weak bunch.
Larry Collmus was obviously the right pick to replace the brilliant Tom Durkin as the voice of the Triple Crown on NBC. In an era where too many announcers are screamers or rely on gimmicks, Collmus is a pro's pro. He is accurate, understands what's going on out on the racetrack and never misses a beat. Over the years, expect more of the same from an announcer who is as solid as they get in this business.
As good as Animal Kingdom has been on the dirt, he figures to be all that much better on the grass. Out of a German mare and by Leroidesanimaux, he comes from a sire whose runners tend to be far better on the turf than they are on the dirt. In the U.S., the big money is in dirt racing, so that's probably where he will stay for the foreseeable future. But Barry Irwin, who heads the Team Valor International syndicate, tends to think outside the box more than anyone in this sport, might he be inclined to go for some of the big prizes in Europe? It could be worth a try.
Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact him at email@example.com.