Andy Serling has been playing the horses for almost his entire life, and is currently the co-host of NYRA Live. To follow Andy on Twitter, click here.
In 1979, the truly great, and even remarkable, Spectacular Bid was set to become the third consecutive winner of the Triple Crown, and fourth in seven seasons. Since opening the eyes of racing fans with his devastating 15 length win in the World's Playground at Atlantic City, getting seven furlongs in 1:20 4/5, leaving his shorter priced rival Coastal 17 lengths behind, Spectacular Bid had run his winning streak to a remarkable twelve straight ( yes, that's 12 wins from September 23rd of his 2YO year through May 19th the following year ). The total margin of victory in those 12 wins, including the KY Derby and Preakness, was 76 1/2 lengths, or just under 6 1/2 lengths per win. With his impending Triple Crown victory appearing to be a mere formality following his 5 1/2 win in the Preakness, many racing fans were beginning to wonder if after a 25 year drought, from 1948 to 1973, suddenly the Triple Crown had become too easy to win. And then, eight days later, they ran the Peter Pan at Belmont Park.
Coastal was merely a blip on most people's radar after a non-descript 2YO season, which included two wins in five starts, including the aforementioned 17 length drubbing behind Spectacular Bid in the World's Playground, when he returned to make his 3YO debut on April 28th, one week to the day before Spectacular Bid won the KY Derby at 3:5. However, in just 29 days, Coastal opened a lot of eyes with three consecutive wins. After winning his six furlong comeback race at Aqueduct in 1:10 3/5, over a muddy track, by 1 3/4 lengths, he returned 15 days later, once again at Aqueduct in the mud, to win by eight lengths, while covering seven furlongs in 1:22 1/5. While these two wins hardly gained enormous attention, especially as it came in the midst of Spectacular Bid's Triple Crown wins, the William Haggin Perry runner, trained by David Whiteley, officially opened those eyes exactly two weeks later, this time at Belmont Park, when he won the Peter Pan, NY's Belmont Stakes prep, by 13 lengths ( who did he think he was, Spectacular Bid? ) stopping the clock at 1:47 for the nine furlongs. Suddenly, as Jerry Seinfeld once said, a new contender had emerged.
Coastal, a half brother to future champion Slew O' Gold, was no great underdog, especially after that explosive Peter Pan win, when he met the great " Bid " 13 days later. He was just 4:1 when he prevented the Triple Crown from being " cheapened " by a third straight conqueror. Whether or not you buy the story that Spectacular Bid stepped on a safety pin the morning of the Belmont Stakes, finishing a neck behind Golden Act, who he had drowned by 5 1/2 lengths in the Preakness, clearly demonstrated he did not run his best race that day. Or perhaps it was the 1 1/2 miles that got to him, as that was the only distance he lost at in his final 26 races. But, given that his next 1 1/2 mile loss was later that year at Belmont Park in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, to Triple Crown victor Affirmed, with Coastal three lengths back in third, it would be more than fair to say that perhaps the best horse did not win that day. But, don't let that diminish Coastal's immense talent. He followed his Belmont Stakes triumph with a four length win, over Private Account, in the Dwyer, once again covering nine furlongs in 1:47, and then an easy victory in the Monmouth Invitational ( later the Haskell ) in early August. After resting during Saratoga ( a wise choice given General Assembly's record setting Travers romp ), he returned in the Marlboro Cup at Belmont Park....and a rematch with the now rested Spectacular Bid. Bid tuned up for the Marlboro Cup with a 17 length gallop in a Delaware Park allowance, his first start since his Belmont Stakes loss. Unfortunately for Coastal, the real Spectacular Bid showed up that day, and Coastal could do no better than third, 1 1/4 lengths behind General Assembly, and 6 1/4 in total behind the Bid. As history would show, this was no disgrace. Neither were his subsequent 2 1/2 length loss to Affirmed in the Woodward ( besting the very talented Billy Turner trained runner Czaravich by 3 3/4 lengths ), and previously discussed 3 3/4 loss to both Affirmed and Spectacular Bid in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, which ended his racing career.
Spectacular Bid followed his loss to Affirmed with an easy win, 12 days later, in the Meadowlands Cup to close out his 3YO racing season. His 9-9 4YO season was truly the stuff that legends are made of. He finished his career with 26 wins, 2 seconds, and one third in 30 career starts, as well as a remarkable 24 for 24 in races from 7 to 10 furlongs. Thus, when some racing curmudgeons, like myself, complain that perhaps some horse over the last couple of decades might not have been Triple Crown worthy, remember that some of us saw Spectacular Bid fail in his attempt, which then some actually thought would cheapen the legacy of the Triple Crown. And we saw him fail to do it against a horse as immensely talented as Coastal. Believe me, those WERE the days.
What do you do at the racetrack if you love a horse in the last race, but a good friend is alive for a monster score in the Pick-6, and his ticket does not include your selection? I know what I do...I bet my horse, and if I lose, I root like hell for my friend to win. However, if I don't have a strong opinion on the race, I don't bet...and I root like hell for my friend. Well, I have two roots in this year's Preakness. I work for NYRA, and at NYRA we root for one horse, in one race, every year. We root for the KY Derby to win the Preakness for the very obvious reasons. But I'm also rooting for Dialed In. Not that long ago, Magna announced a bonus for horses winning a combination of races in either California or Florida. Because Dialed In won both the Holy Bull and the Florida Derby, he became eligible to win that bonus, which would be $5 million to Dialed In's owner Bob LaPenta and $500,000 to his trainer Nick Zito, if Dialed In wins the Preakness. Given that Nick is a good friend of mine, I will root for him ( assuming the horse racing for those that sign my checks, that would be Animal Kingdom, doesn't win ). However, the question still remains as to whether or not I have an opinion strong enough to bet against either of these two enormous roots.
In the absence of any major reason to want to wager on any in this year's Preakness, let's start by discussing the horses I don't like, and why. Starting from the rail out, there's Astrology, a horse that has always generated a reasonable amount of buzz, and frankly, I'm not sure why. He's OK, but nothing he has done on the racetrack indicates he will be particularly successful in this Preakness. In a way, he feels like he's always running in a race without having performed in a prerequisite prep. Norman Asbjornson seems overmatched. King Congie is a nice turf horse, but has not run well on the dirt, and feels misplaced. Flashpoint is a sprinter, whose connections seem determined to run him in the wrong spots, when there are plenty of " right " spots available. He is a very talented horse but seems highly unlikely to be successful at longer distances, especially against top company. He will, however, guarantee an honest pace, and perhaps compromise the chances of Shackleford, while possibly helping some others. Midnight Interlude was dreadful in the Derby, backing up after sitting in a comfortable spot, and needs to show a LOT more before he can be considered a legitimate contender. Running down Comma at the Top at 1 1/8 in the Santa Anita Derby is no longer seeming like a particularly strong accomlishment. Isn't He Perfect and Concealed Identity both seem overmatched.
Now that I have eliminated half the field, let's take a quick look at the charms of the remaining entrants. I left Mr. Commons in, not because I am a big fan, but because it seems possible the rail wasn't the best place to be in the stretch of the Santa Anita Derby. The problem is, there is nothing else to recommend about him, and he may only seem possible because having raced in only four races, we have yet to determine conclusively that he doesn't belong. He would be, at best, a very fringe player, say third or fourth in supers, for me. Shackleford has certainly run OK in his last two, but after setting a quick pace in the Florida Derby, he got away with a more tepid one in Kentucky, and that does not rate to happen in the Preakness. With Flashpoint, and even some others I will get to, this pace should be hotter, and Shackleford has yet to show an ability to rate comfortably off a faster pace. While I consider him a possible winner, for those reasons I wouldn't bet him. I can understand the appeal of Sway Away, he ran a visually impressive, and fast, race three back, had a seemingly fair excuse two back, and made a premature wide move into a hot pace in the Arkansas Derby. My problem is that I think Dance City ran better than him at Oaklawn, and ultimately I believe Sway Away is more of a sprinter. However, he does seem like one of the few that might be able to win this race, and I would use him as a C type in Pick-4s or the like. Dance City does seem like a major player. He has come around quickly for Todd Pletcher, and ran well in the teeth of the Arkansas Derby pace, after being used hard early to keep The Factor at bay. The biggest question with him may be whether or not a son of City Zip can ultimately be successful at the Preakness distance, but given his performances so far at 1 1/8 miles, it doesn't seem out of the question. He seems like the likeliest upsetter to me. Mucho Macho Man is obviously a player, and I will include him in multi-race tickets as insurance, but ultimately I'm not convinced he will beat these horses without a comfortable trip on a modest pace, something that won't happen here. He simply hasn't shown the quickness to pounce and win races against better than decent fields. Unless you feel for some reason that Animal Kingdom will be a complete no-show, I don't see why he should win this weekend. He's OK, but not a horse that I expect to win unless all the others fail to run their best races. Which leads us to Dialed In. The $6.1 million question ( I've included the Preakness purse ) is whether or not he was really simply too far off what was a moderate pace in the KY Derby ( personally I think it was relatively fair....but not super fast like most KY Derby paces ) to do his best running or is he ultimately just not good enough, and more of a talented closer best suited to one mile races. His Holy Bull win was impressive. It was a fair to moderate pace, and yet he made a huge run, in just his second career start, to win rather impressively. His Florida Derby, however, while visually impressive, may well have been the result of a fast pace where nobody save Shackleford ran a step. However, given the likely fast pace of this Preakness, and the distance questions which surround many of the other contenders, a fair case can be made that Dialed In is the second likeliest winner of this race. Perhaps it is simply a case of him proving enough so far to suggest he deserves one more chance after the KY Derby. But, is this enough for me to bet him in the 9:2 range? No, it isn't. I will root for my friend, use him in the Pick-4 as an A, but I can't pick him on top. He simply has too many questions to answer to make him worth a play at his expected odds. Which leaves us with the KY Derby winner Animal Kingdom.
Animal Kingdom is, based on his KY Derby, the best horse in this race, and unquestionably the likeliest winner. However, off the rest of his races, he is nowhere close to that. Thus you have to ask yourself if this seemingly turf-bred horse is ultimately a dirt horse, that was hampered by the surfaces he raced on prior to May 7th, or if his Derby was a one race fluke. Frankly, that cannot be answered until late on Saturday. My gut feeling, however, is that he is a dirt horse. He ran so smoothly, and easily, in the KY Derby that I have no concrete reason to question him going forward. It was not hard to believe going into the Derby that one horse could easily separate himself from this bunch, as the overall talent level was not high for a race of this magnitude, and Animal Kingdom has did just that. Going forward, I will hardly be surprised when he continues to show his dominance. He is, sorry to say from an odds standpoint, my pick to win this Preakness. My Preakness picks are Animal Kingdom - Dance City - Dialed In - Mr. Commons. From a betting standpoint I will use mostly the top three in multi-race bets, and in just the Preakness I will fool around with Dance City, and try to make money with him if he finishes in any of the first three slots. My root from a betting and loyalty standpoint may very well be intertwined.
Every year around KY Derby time, you invariably see mention of " who is this year's Wise Guy horse? " Wise guy seems to be one of a plethora of phrases you hear around the racetrack that has, to be kind, multiple interpretations. I often wonder if those seemingly deciding who becomes the annual " wise guy " horse have ever even encountered an honest to goodness Wise Guy. This, of course, begs the question " What is a Wise Guy? "
Well, to me at least, a Wise Guy is, first and foremost, genuinely " smart, " which in racetrack parlance means he ( or she ) possesses a valuable handicapping opinion. Thus, the Wise Guy horse is a sound selection. The Wise Guy also generally goes against the flow. However, he does not possess the unfortunate disease of simply picking against a favorite, especially a heavy one, " just because...." The Wise Guy knows, within reason, when NOT to play against heavy favorites, and when he does, he picks longshots with at least a reasonable level of accuracy. The true Wise Guy isn't still resting on the laurels of picking Charismatic or Giacomo in their respective KY Derbies, as ( theoretically ) there have been many other memorable predictions in the interim.
Then how, you ask, can the general public accurately determine who really is this year's KY Derby Wise Guy horse? Given the elusive nature of most honest to goodness Wise Guys, the most effective method might be to somehow try to get into the head of a Wise Guy. Since conventional wisdom in this year's KY Derby seems to already be heading into Wise Guy territory, in that many see this year's field as widely evenly matched, maybe the actual Wise Guy play isn't some version of " box the four best longshots. " In fact, maybe it's just the opposite. Is it possible that, ultimately, Dialed In, the likely favorite, is really this year's " Wise Guy Horse? "
As we ease into this year’s Belmont it strikes me how different it is than last year. While last year there were vulnerable favorites, this Belmont contains three horses, Ice Box and Fly Down for trainer Nick Zito, and First Dude for Dale Romans, that appear to tower over their competition, and while 1½ mile races often invite unanswerable questions prior to their running, it feels unlikely this grouping won’t provide the winner if not the exacta ( or even tri ). The first question has to be whether or not there will early pressure on First Dude, and if so can he successfully rate, and thus will there ultimately be enough early pace for Ice Box. In my opinion, while Interactif and Game On Dude could show some early speed, First Dude will dispose of them before the 5/8ths pole, and very possibly gallop himself into the Belmont winner’s circle. His Preakness was an exceptional performance, setting a very strong pace, and battling back through the stretch after appearing beaten before the quarter pole. The problem for me is that having bet him at almost 24:1 in the Preakness, it’s hard to get overly excited at his expected much shorter price this Saturday. However, I am not sure I love the alternatives. Ice Box was very probably the best horse almost five weeks ago in the KY Derby, getting repeatedly stopped in the final 5/16ths of the race, and eventually rerallying for a hard closing second. When you couple this with the picture perfect trip the winner, Super Saver, received, it becomes even more evident that Ice Box was the best horse that day. But, Ice Box is a deep closer that has benefited greatly from two straight strong paces, and this situation may well not present itself in this year’s Belmont Stakes. However, I am not sure he is the plodding one run closer that some believe, and think a strong argument could be made that he is a somewhat slow developing horse that is simply getting better with each race. His dam Spice Island won the Long Island Handicap at 1½ miles on the grass, thus stamina should not be an issue, and if First Dude is not able to “ gallop away “ from the field, that means the pace will collapse, and Ice Box may very well be the best horse running in the last quarter of a mile. Or maybe he won’t be, and that title will belong to the other Nick Zito runner, Fly Down. Fly Down is part accomplishment and part potential. With just five starts to his credit, and a powerful win in the Dwyer here at Belmont ( at 1 1/8 miles ), he ultimately may prove the best of these three as we head towards the Summer and Fall. Fly Down holds two decisions over First Dude, one at Churchill Downs and one at Gulfstream, but it is arguable that First Dude did more work in both races than Fly Down. But, Fly Down has gotten it done, so to speak, and First Dude still only win to his credit, and as good as he is, he is close to getting a bridesmaid reputation, though a very good one. Fly Down, while a closer, isn’t quite the plodder that Ice Box is, which may put him more in the game. How much this will help him is debatable however, as will it be easier to beat First Dude by trying to grind him out, or by hoping he gets leg weary and thus, essentially, collapses the race…in which case Ice Box will win. If nothing else these are a lot of scenarios to consider, and finally I have decided the likeliest is that First Dude gallops the field into submission, with the second likeliest being he fails to get the trip, the race collapses, and Ice Box wins. However, I’m still not convinced it’s not a three-sided coin flip.
But there’s plenty more action at Belmont Saturday, with five Graded stakes besides the Belmont, three of which are Grade 1s. Let’s go in order and take a quick look at what they have to offer….
Race 6 – The Woody Stephens
Eightyfiveinafifty may be the most talented 3YO running in this country as long as he stays within his comfort zone as he is in this race. He is faster early than the other horses and if he behaves himself, always a big if in his case, he will prove very hard to beat. D’Funnybone draws well outside, but I cannot excuse his last race, and will look to beat him. Discreetly Mine finished well behind D’Funnybone in the Futurity last Fall at Belmont, but he was mired with traffic troubles after breaking a beat slow from the rail that day, while D’Funnybone had a perfect trip. I love the turnback from route races to this sprint for Discreetly Mine and believe he has moved forward since that race and I am not convinced D’Funnybone has not done the opposite. So while I recognize that Eightyfiveinafifty is the horse to beat, I will try to beat him with Discreetly Mine.
Race 7 – The Just a Game
While the race is basically devoid of speed, and thus Speak Easy Gal looks to have a tactical edge on paper, I simply believe she isn’t nearly good enough to win, and will dismiss the race dynamics here. Proviso, on the other hand, is the best horse in the race, and after overcoming a slow pace to beat a solid male, Fluke, last time in the Frank Kilroe at Santa Anita I will be surprised if she doesn’t overcome the similar dynamics to annex this race. Pholo is the wildcard, but I believe her impressive looking effort at Churchill Downs on Derby Day may have had a lot to do with the yielding course, which is the opposite of the sun baked course she will encounter here at Belmont. On the other hand, Fantasia may have been hampered by that same course condition when fourth to Pholo, and she very well turn the tables on the firmer turf here. Again, Proviso will be very tough and my only back up horse in the Pick-6 will be Fantasia.
Race 8 – The True North Handicap
Custom for Carlos is very much the horse to beat here. He has simply run faster, against tougher horses, in his recent races. However, I do not discount the chances of Bribon, who breaks just outside of him. While Bribon is more accomplished going seven furlongs to one mile, he had no chance in the Westchester, his last start. The Westchester was his second start for new trainer Todd Pletcher, and after shipping to Barbados for his prior effort, he encountered a very slow pace that day, and was much closer than he wants to be while making a somewhat premature four wide run. I like the turnback in distance, and with a likely much faster pace scenario, he should be able to make his preferred late run. I do worry that at seven years old he isn’t the horse he was last year but if anyone is going to beat Custom for Carlos, Bribon has far and away the best chance. A longshot perhaps worth a second look is Snapshot. Snapshot was made the favorite in a much weaker sprint stake on the Preakness undercard, and while he never did much running to finish fifth, he was always caught behind and between horses after breaking a bit sluggishly. The pace was tepid, with the winner going wire to wire, and perhaps with a cleaner trip in the True North, he can run closer to his previous expectations at a much bigger price. Bribon – Custom for Carlos – Snapshot for me.
Race 9 – The Acorn
While the Belmont Stakes is clearly the most anticipated and prestigious race on the card, no race looks more interesting on paper than this 13 horse Acorn. This race has everything, accomplished horses from both coasts, some trying real dirt for the first time, and promising up and comers. Amen Hallelujah is the likely favorite, and after trying two turns and 1 1/8 miles in back to back races, with decent but mixed results, she return to her preferred one turn mile distance in the Acorn. If she runs as well as she did at Gulfstream, when winning the Davona Dale, or at Santa Anita, when she defeated the very tough Franny Freud on the Pro-Ride surface, she will take a ton of beating here. Tanda is one of two California horses shipping in for this race, and she comes off two impressive efforts in Grade 3 Stakes out there. She faces, however, two major obstacles. One, she must carry her synthetic track form to dirt. I am not as concerned about this as the other obstacle, as due to her near inside post, and reasonable early speed, she may be forced to run harder early than perhaps will be to her advantage, and as opposed to dictating the race, she will be have the race dictated to her. The other California horse, Crisp, has run on dirt before. She tried the KY Oaks, and while she finished seventh, after a bit of early trouble, and a wide trip, her race may not be as bad as it appears on paper. The problem with Crisp is that she has never run particularly fast speed figures and may simply not be good enough. However, I will throw her in at a price. Much Rejoicing is one of the “ up and comers “ and interests me a great deal in here. Despite appearing perhaps better bred for turf, at least on her dam side of turf champion Soaring Softly, she handled the dirt quite well in her debut. She improved even further in her second race, at Keeneland, easily beating Buckleupbuttercup, who also ships in for this Acorn after winning the Eight Belles impressively in the slop of Derby Day. It does concern me that Much Rejoicing may have run much better at Keeneland because her turf pedigree is more suited for the Polytrack than dirt, but considering her debut, I don’t think it is a stretch to expect bigger and better things from her. The other up and comer is Streaker from the habitually overbet Phipps/McGaughey team, and while she too needs to step up her game here, she has won both of her last starts quite easily, and two back she handled the upset winner of the Black-Eyed Susan Acting Happy. I will use all of Amen Hallelujah – Much Rejoicing – Crisp – Tanda – Streaker in my Pick-4 play that culminates with the Belmont Stakes.
Race 10 – The Manhattan
Simply put, if Gio Ponti regains his form of last year, he will win this race. However, he has not run in over two months, with his last race a solid fourth in the Dubai World Cup. While I don’t worry as much about horses shipping back from Dubai as some, it isn’t unfair to winder if at five years old Gio Ponti may either not be as good as last year or take some more time to regain that impressive form. While I am rooting for him to be the Gio Ponti of old, as he is one of my all-time favorite horses, it may be fair to take a shot against him here ( while certainly using him in any Pick-4 or Pick-6 play ). Just as Well at his best looks the second best horse at the distance ( he was second to Gio Poni in the 2009 Arlington Million ). While he had a decent trip around the racetrack when second to Strike a Deal ( who is also in this Manhattan ) in the Dixie on the Preakness undercard, it is fair to say he was compromised by the slow pace set by that wire to wire winner, and was always forced to be closer to the pace than he comfortably wants to be. Given the presence of Jet Propulsion in this race, Strike a Deal won’t get the same easy lead, and Just as Well should get the faster pace he craves. For those reasons I will take him to upset Gio Ponti. The other major contender appears to be Take the Points, who also returns from Dubai, where he ran an excellent 5th in the Dubai Duty Free on World Cup Day. He had an excellent 3YO season, winning both the Grade 1 Secretariat at Arlington and the Grade 1 Jamaica at Belmont, but never ran seemingly fast enough to beat the horses he faces in this Manhattan. However, he seemed to step up his game in his 4YO debut, the Gulfstream Turf Handicap, where he finished first only to be disqualified ( in my opinion a poor call ). With continued improvement he is definitely a threat in this race. Somewhere on my tickets I will also include longshot Pinckney Hill, as he has always shown promise in his limited campaigns, and perhaps he can finally put it together this year. He does, obviously, need to run better than he ever has in the past.
There you have it, six big Stakes on what promises to be a very exciting day culminating with the 142nd Belmont Stakes, a race that I believe will produce this year’s 3YO champion as we open the door to what will be a very exciting second half of the 2010 racing season.