Friday, May 20, 2011

Sophomore Spotlight: Preakness Analysis

--Brian DiDonato

The first step in handicapping any renewal of the Preakness is determining what stance to take on the Derby winner. Animal Kingdom is an imposing figure--he convincingly established superiority over the group he faced two weeks ago and there is no reason to believe that anything has changed. From a betting perspective, however, Animal Kingdom's odds will be equal to or lower than his actual chance of victory, while a pair of new shooters figure to be significant overlays coming off rough trips and lacking the familiarity to the public of the Derby contestants. Animal Kingdom is the most frustrating kind of favorite--a deserving one, but an underlay. I will try to beat him in many of my bets, partially because I'm stubborn and partially due to my positive take on two others, but I will also use him heavily on top of my value keys--he can still top an overlaid pay-off. See below for my analysis of every runner in the Preakness field.

#6 Sway Away - This sway-backed colt was second with a very nice late move in the seven-furlong San Vicente behind The Factor and in front of next-out romper Premier Pegasus while earning a 101 Beyer. He appears on paper to have struggled with added ground after that, but he had significant trip excuses in his two route attempts. After a rough start in the Rebel, Sway Away was rank while being wrestled with a bit by Garret Gomez. In the Arkansas Derby, rider Patrick Valenzuela commenced his mount’s wide move much too prematurely. He grew leg weary late, but not because of distance limitations--because of trip. That heat was clearly the strongest Derby prep, as runner-up Nehro returned to fill the same slot in Kentucky and fifth-place finisher Alternation took last weekend's Peter Pan. He is by Preakness winner Afleet Alex, who sired last year's Travers hero Afleet Express, and is out of a Seattle Slew mare who herself is out of a Summer Squall mare--there's plenty of stamina in Sway Away's pedigree, and value to be had if you excuse his last two.

#8 Dance City - He seemed overmatched coming into the Arkansas Derby, but at almost 30-1, he was a surprising late factor after chasing faster-than-average fractions. All the positives discussed above for the race he and Sway Away exit are obviously relevant here, too. Dance City does not appear to need the lead, and figures to be well-ridden by Ramon Dominguez. He could find himself getting the jump on Animal Kingdom, and has a bit more stamina in his pedigree than meets the eye--especially on his dam side. His second dam, Dance Review, is by the incomparable Northern Dancer. She produced No Review (GISW at 1 1/4mT), Dance Colony (GISP at 1 1/8m) and Another Review (GISW at 1 1/8m, GISP at 1 1/4m).

#11 Animal Kingdom - It's hard to find any knocks against his Derby performance--believe me, I’ve tried. He was not the beneficiary of an advantageous set-up (nor did he overcome a rough trip), and he proved best. From a value standpoint, however, he will be an underlay. While he's the most likely winner and an absolute must-include, the two new shooters are closer to him in “actual” chance of winning than the odds will reflect and Shackleford has at least a minor chance to turn the tables. With a short turnaround and plenty of other obstacles, there is no reason to concede the race to Animal Kingdom at a short price. But you still can’t toss him.

#5 Shackleford - The pace he set in the Kentucky Derby was not nearly as glacial as it has been made out to be--it was very neutral. While the chart says he was off the rail in the Derby, he was inside for much of the race on a track that seemed all weekend to be a bit dead inside. He hung in for a long time and the minor cut back should help him. The big chestnut is similar in many ways to First Dude--the fellow Dale Romans trainee who finished second to Lookin at Lucky here last year--and the pace is not guaranteed to be as fast some believe it will be. I can conceive of scenarios where Shackleford will get loose and hold on, and will therefore protect with him in PK3/4 bets. I will also use him very sparingly on top in my exactas and trifectas and include him heavily underneath.

#9 Mucho Macho Man - He always runs his race, and might be the most likely of anyone to hit the board, but the big, still-developing colt always seems to find a foe or two better. There's really no reason to expect him to turn the tables on Animal Kingdom and he won't offer much value, but he is an underneath threat. He might even be a good anchor to build a backwards ticket around.

#14 Mr. Commons - Supposedly he displaced late in the Santa Anita Derby, which might be the only way to put a positive enough spin on his performance that day to project competitiveness Saturday. I thought highly of him before the Santa Anita Derby, and will use him in the third slot on the off chance that the promise he flashed when breaking his maiden on the sod will be realized in this spot. He's not a win candidate, however.

#7 Midnight Interlude - He was towards the top of my list for the Derby off a very solid Santa Anita Derby performance (not exactly flattered by him or Comma to the Top, however), but he ran an absolute clunker with no apparent excuse. He was a danger to find the Derby too much, too soon, and maybe that's what happened. It's not as if he put in a run like Curlin did (the immense chasm of talent between them aside) in the Derby, however, and it seems somewhat ambitious to even run him back here. I will use him protectively in the third slot, but it's hard to envision him performing the sort of U-turn he would have to to find the winner's circle.

#10 Dialed In - This might be my most dangerous opinion in the race (for my personal bankroll at least)--I don't think Dialed In will hit the board. His Kentucky Derby run was more of an illusion than the monster move from too far back it is being made out to be, and it was comparable to what he ran in his two previous efforts. It is a fallacy to believe he would have run a better race with faster early splits. He would have run the same race, just with more horses coming back to him. The expected second-choice has not come close to returning to the 98 Beyer top he earned for annexing the Holy Bull in impressive fashion, and gives the impression of a closing miler.

#1 Astrology - He has had a number of set-backs this year, and his form last term was dressed-up. He had a very easy trip in the Jerome and, while he finished second, nobody besides the winner impressed. This is a tall task for a horse who has been backed off on and re-routed several times, and it seems far more likely that he'll take a step back here rather than a jump forward.

#4 Flashpoint - His two sprint races were very impressive, but what was most puzzling about his Florida Derby try isn't that he was fairly uncompetitive--it's that he wasn't on the lead or at least pressing Shackleford. It's hard to count on him to be close early this time, but considering the lay-off and quick drills in the interim, he'll probably show more speed before fading. He'll be an interesting King's Bishop prospect down the line, but going long just isn't his game.

#2 Norman Asbjornson - He'll be running late, but there aren't going to be enough horses stopping in front of him to make up for the talent and speed edge many of his opponents have on him.

#13 Concealed Identity - He's the only Preakness contestant with a win (x2) or even a race at Pimlico, but that isn't nearly enough to make him competitive with these dramatically classier animals. He was offered up for a $30K tag when he won two-back, and the short turnaround probably won't do him any favors.

#3 King Congie - He improved dramatically when switched to the turf, and paid $88 that day because of how poor his dirt form was. His turf/synthetic races wouldn't be good enough to win this if he were able to transfer them to the main track, and I'm not convinced he wants to go long (unlike most turfy types)--his dam was a sprinter, by a sprinter (End Sweep), who sired sprinters (i.e. Trippi). King Congie also tends to misbehave late in his races.

#12 Isn't He Perfect - Not sure why he is in this race. He broke his maiden for a $40K tag and his only other victory came in a starter allowance--he faced three other runners that day and the second-place finisher was coming off a winning debut for $12.5K.

I will be betting Sway Away to win at what should be double-digit odds, and will box him in the exacta with Dance City and Animal Kingdom. I will also make a smaller Sway Away/Dance City/Shackleford exacta box. I will play trifectas with my top three, adding Shackleford and Mucho Macho Man in the second slot and Mr. Commons and Midnight Interlude in third. I will go for more of a home run in the Pick 3s and 4s, leaning almost completely on Sway Away and Dance City, and using a little Shackleford.

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