The middle jewel of the Triple Crown is upon us. Animal Kingdom carries the hopes of a nation that he can end the drought that has stricken us since Affirmed in 1978 of a Triple crown winner. The undercard has some solid races with some past Grade 1 winners, some hopeful up-and-comers and good betting opportunities. Ranging from a pair of 6 furlong sprints all the way to the mile and three-sixteenths of the Preakness, this figures to be a good day of racing. Let's start with the race for the fillies and mares going a mile and one-sixteenth.
The Alliare Dupont Distaff marks the return to graded stakes company for multiple grade one winner Life At Ten. After a so-so second in her 2011 debut going one turn at Gulfstream. Returning to two-turns, she towers over this field on class. The only concern is that she may have lost something after that debacle in the Breeders' Cup and maybe Father Time has caught up with her a bit. Her main danger is Payton D'Oro. Her biggest win was 2009 Black-Eyed Susan right her at this track. She ran a so-so third in her only start this year, and that was her first start in the year. She's worked well for trainer Larry Jones, but she also may have lost a step. Decelerator figures to be winging on the front end.
Two races later brings together 3yo sprinters in the Chick Lang Stakes going 6 furlongs. This is the second leg of the guaranteed $250k Early Pick 4. (This blog thinks that #8 Easy Ashley is a single in the first leg of the Pick 4). This is a tough race as contention runs deep. Ghost Is Clear just quit last time, for some reason, but has come back to work well, and has several sprint races which would be competitive. Chipshot comes in third off the layoff with a bullet work in tow. Escort just quit on the Poly last time, has worked well since, and has power couple Pletcher/Velazquez behind him. Venegeful Wildcat has two narrow losses this year against similar. Road Ready will be coming out of the clouds, but can he get up in time?
Next up is the James W Murphy for three year olds on the lawn going a mile. This looks like a three horse race between: Lil Bit O'Fun, who gets some class relief after meeting the best turf 3yos in the country last out; Humble and Hungry gets back on turf in his second start of the year and acquires the services of Garrett Gomez; and Joes Blazing Aaron, who won the Grade 3 Palm Beach two back in gate-to-wire fashion. These three tower over the rest of the field.
The last race of the early Pick 4 is Grade 3 Maryland Sprint. The heavy favorite figures to be the SoCal based Ventana. He has banged heads with some of the best sprinters on the west coast, but always seems to come out on the short end. This blog believes that he is slightly better at a distance a half-furlong longer than today's distance, which makes him very vulnerable. Nathan's H Q is a true speedball, but he is inside speed, and he looks that he will have the lead turning for home. If he can shake free, he is a danger to lead gate-to-wire. China comes back in 17 days after a solid second behind a gunner in the oft-injured but very talented Irrefutable. He threw a swift workout in the interim and could be sitting on a huge effort. He'll be sitting just off the pace.
The start of the guaranteed $1 million dollar late Pick 4 starts with the Grade 3 Galorette Handicap. The highweight and favorite is Breeders Cup Filly & Mare Turf winner Shared Account. This is her first race since her huge upset win in the BC, and she has been training steadily for her trainer Graham Motion. She ran 4th in this race last year off a similar layoff. This looks like a good time to take a stand against her at short odds, and the horse to take advantage is No Explaining. She won last out in solid turf race at Keeneland in good time. She ships down for her trainer Roger Attfield from her Woodbine home base, which is saying something since Woodbine offers a race at a similar distance two weeks from now for three times the purse. She retains top jock John Velazquez in the irons, who will keep her mid-pack, looking to get a jump on the favorite. She will enjoy any give in the ground as well. The 10 pound difference in weight in favor of No Explaining can't hurt either.
The William Donald Schaefer and the Dixie have a horse cross-entered in Eighttofasttocatch. If he runs in the Schaefer, as is the most likely scenario, he rates a solid chance, but he must defeat a much deeper, but not necessarily stronger, field. Colizeo (looking to bounce back after an no excuse third in the Grade 3 Skip Away), Pleasant Prince (first race since getting crushed in the BC Classic and his second race against older), Icabad Crane (has a win over the track and ran third in the Preakness three years ago) and Apart (Trying to follow in former barnmate Blame's footsteps, though he has nowhere near the killer instinct of the champion older male).
If “Eight” does go in the Dixie, his main obstacle is Paddy O'Prado. This multiple graded stakes winner was the king of the three year-olds on turf, winning 4 stakes an finishing 2nd against older in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic before getting beaten by 5 ½ in the BC Classic. He makes his 2011 debut in the Dixie, and brings a solid series of works into the race. This maybe the best time to beat him, as this race is clearly a means to an end for bigger and better things later on in the year. He is carrying the same amount of weight as the others, which gives him a clear advantage over the field. Hopefully “Eight” stays in this race, as he looks to be one with a chance to upset the heavy favorite at a big price.
This leaves the big one, the Preakness. Now this blog admits that the Kentucky Derby was an unmitigated disaster, but the struggle to find a pick, let alone a key in the exotics, portended doom from the beginning. After regrouping, seeing what went wrong and admitting that the selections have been very hit or miss with this lot this year, a renewed enthusiasm for the race came on. Now, the pick for today is not to win, but to place. That is because this horse s probably not good enough to win, but under the right circumstances he can light up the tote at a big number. That horse is Norman Asbjornson. He ran 4th in the Wood after running 2nd in the Gotham. His sire won this race back in 1998, and he has solid local connections. He's had two stamina building workouts in the interim and has made a solid appearance in the mornings. He's slowly improved with every race, with this being his third off the layoff. If his jockey can time the move just right, maybe he grind his way to second.
So the Preakness is upon us. Can Animal Kingdom keep his Triple Crown hopes alive? Will Someone end them instead? Can Shared Account and Paddy O'Prado return off the layoff to their previous form? We shall see. Good luck everybody!