Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Case Against 'Chrome': Handicapping the Preakness

--Brian DiDonato

Victor Espinoza celebrates aboard California Chrome
   When a lower-priced horse wins the Derby, we tend to think that all the questions leading up to the first Saturday in May have been answered. Take last year, for example. Orb seemed off his Florida form like he could be the best 3-year-old in that crop, so when he won the Derby by a convincing margin, the result appeared to be definitive. Most (myself included) dismissed, or at least minimized, the fact that the Derby was run over a sloppy surface and featured a complete meltdown pace. Orb had been anointed the latest sure-thing Triple Crown winner (proud to say I don’t think I went quite that far). Then Derby also-rans Oxbow (15-1), Palice Malice (13-1) and Will Take Charge (9-1) took the Preakness, Belmont and Travers, respectively, with Orb going down at low odds each time, and things looked a whole lot less cut-and-dry.
   There is the distinct possibility of a similar phenomenon occurring this year. Yes, California Chrome had the best form coming into the Derby, and as he pulled away from his competition I thought to myself, “Okay, he’s just too good for these horses.” But then the timer didn’t stop until 2:03.66, and everyone’s figures came back slow. And then I watched the replay a few times and realized that the favorite enjoyed a dream trip in a race that was full of rough ones.
   Nothing about the Derby necessarily proved that California Chrome isn’t a stand-out in this bunch, but the same reasons that were there to play against him at 5-2 in the Derby are still there and now he's going to be 3-5 off of two weeks' rest. The pace that never materialized over a speed-friendly surface at Churchill looks like a sure thing here, and that could certainly hurt the chalk’s chances. If he wins again, you tip your cap (and triple down in the Belmont), but I’m not ready to anoint California Chrome just yet--and I'm certainly not taking 3-5 on anybody ever.
   See below for my horse-by-horse analysis.

1. Dynamic Impact - 12-1 - Certainly took a while to break out of the maiden ranks, but as soon as he did, he went on to upset the GIII Illinois Derby. It’s hard to know how much credit to give him for that effort, though. He sat a pretty dream trip just off of heavily favored Midnight Hawk, and may have benefitted more from that one’s distance and mental limitations than anything else. Still, he’s by Tiznow out of a Smart Strike mare who, though she was a sprinter, hails from a stout enough family. So the distance looks up his alley, and he could be moving in the right direction. Might just sit the trip--not completely out of this.

2. General a Rod - 15-1 - Reminds me of last year’s Preakness runner-up Itsmyluckyday, but with maybe a less advantageous style in relation to the projected pace--unless he comes from farther back like he did in the Derby, which you’d think his connections might try. His Derby trip was definitely less than perfect. He was really running late, and would have likely been maybe fifth or sixth if not for running into traffic. Still came home fourth-fastest of anyone in the race (:26.26)--behind only California Chrome (:26.21), Commanding Curve (:25.57) and Ride On Curlin (:25.73)--so there’s reason to believe he can be an effective off-the-pace threat. He’s run fast before, and is definitely one to use.

3. California Chrome - 3-5 - Already touched on him above. . . Going to try to get him out of the exacta, but certainly won’t be surprised if he wins. Then I’ll just liquidate my assets and take the Tonalist/Danza Belmont exacta box for the max.

4. Ring Weekend - 20-1 - Seems very much up against it. His front-running upset win of the GII Tampa Bay Derby seems more like the exception than the rule, especially after a disappointing showing in the Calder Derby. Then he had to miss the Derby due to a fever. Can’t envision a scenario in which he can win--his best game is using his speed, and that’s just not going to work here.

5. Bayern - 10-1 - Set a super slow pace when he won that one-mile Santa Anita allowance by 15, and regressed when third as the chalk in the nine-panel GI Arkansas Derby. Hard to love his stretch antics that led to a disqualification when dropped back to a mile for the GIII Derby Trial. Likely pace casualty who doesn’t want to go this far.

6. Ria Antonia - 30-1 - Next. . .

7. Kid Cruz - 20-1 - This is who I’m going with, though it's starting to look like he's a bit of a wise guy horse. He still hasn’t run fast enough on speed figures, but his style fits the way this race has to be run if we’re going to beat California Chrome and he’s been very visually impressive since Linda Rice claimed him for $50,000 in November. He came from out of the clouds to take Laurel’s Private Terms S. Mar. 8 over 1 1/8 miles, and looked like a legitimate GI Wood Memorial threat before having to miss that race due to a sore shoulder. Seemingly no worse for wear, the Linda Rice trainee flew home again into a slow pace to take this venue’s Federico Tesio S. last time Apr. 19. A win over the strip can’t be a bad thing, and the distance shouldn’t be a problem. He still needs to prove he’s good enough, but he has upside and should get the right set-up.

8. Social Inclusion - 5-1 - Possibly the toughest read in the race. He’s shown just about as much talent as any 3-year-old this year, and it’s easy to excuse his tough-trip third in the Wood--he was wide, pressing a hot pace and still looked like the winner until very late. But isn’t he going to run into the same problem here? His connections seem to think his best chance is to try and run these horses off their feet--and maybe they’re right or at least they’re aware that Social Inclusion doesn’t want to rate--but they’re going to have to hope that all the other speeds decide not to send for that strategy to work. Not tossing out completely, as I think it’s hard to deny his talent and could see him winning a race like the Haskell later on this year, but fear he might be up against it again this time.

9. Pablo Del Monte - 20-1 - Seems very likely that he’s a better synthetic horse and doesn’t seem to want this trip. Adds more fuel to the fire.

10. Ride On Curlin - 10-1 - Somewhere between on the lead and dead last early is where he wants to be, but anyone who was surprised with Borel taking him back to last in the Derby just doesn’t pay attention. It may have actually been his best bet considering the potential there for a collapse, but the pace just didn’t quite materialize and he still ran on well to be seventh. He finished faster (:25.73) than everyone but Commanding Curve, and just needs to work out a trip one of these days.

The play: Win bet on Kid Cruz and an exacta box of Kid Cruz, Ride On Curlin, General a Rod and Dynamic Impact. Will also play a Social Inclusion over Kid Cruz exacta saver and will probably use the four from the exacta box, plus Social Inclusion and California Chrome in the pick four if I decide to play one on a somewhat uninspiring undercard.

Kid Cruz draws off in Pimlico's Federico Tesio S.
Jim McCue, Maryland Jockey Club

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