Any handicapping analysis of the Preakness Stakes must begin by looking back at the Kentucky Derby.
Two weeks ago in Louisville, Super Saver got a perfect, ground-saving rail trip from jockey Calvin Borel, rated several lengths off a fast pace that eventually collapsed, flew by the tiring leader with a little less than two furlongs to go, and had more than enough to hold off the closers.
Runner-up Ice Box, who is skipping the Preakness to await the Belmont Stakes in three weeks, rallied strongly to finish just two-and-a-half lengths behind Super Saver and, it can be argued, would have won the race had he not been forced to steady three times during his run. Paddy O'Prado enjoyed a relatively trouble-free trip and was Super Saver's closest pursuer but did have to check once and was not able to hold on to second.
Derby favorite Lookin At Lucky was roughed up twice within the first quarter mile but still closed from 18th to finish sixth. Dublin threatened at the top of the stretch before fading to seventh, while Jackson Bend, who came in 12th, was never a factor.
An aside: On the morning after Super Saver's win, Greg from Seaman, Ohio, e-mailed to say that he had combined Si.com's Derby analysis with some of his own handicapping to hit the trifecta, which paid $2337 for a $2 wager. According to Greg, he had never before bet on a horse race. Congratulations, now let's see you do it again.
Saturday's Preakness at Pimlico in Baltimore is setting up differently from the Derby in two major ways. The Derby was run in the slop, while the Preakness is expected to run on a fast, dry track. But, more importantly, the Derby was loaded with frontrunners, while the Preakness is painfully lacking in early speed. However, there is one significant similarity between the two races: The top choice is still Super Saver.
Selections (morning line odds in parentheses):
8 Super Saver (5-2)
7 Lookin At Lucky (3-1)
11 First Dude (20-1)
2 Schoolyard Dreams (15-1)
8 Super Saver
Many people have knocked the Derby winner since he donned the blanket of roses, saying the win was an aberration and more the result of a perfect trip, a jockey with a magical touch at Churchill, an affinity for the slop, a love for the track, troubled trips by his rivals or a combination of those factors. But how about the possibility that Super Saver is just a horse getting better at the right time?
Super Saver's trainer, Todd Pletcher, repeated all spring about how this three-year-old colt was behind schedule in his preparation for the Derby (the horse didn't have a published work this year until late January, well after most horses.) So, if Pletcher is just now getting on schedule with Super Saver, just imagine how much room he has to improve. The horse is positioned to fire another big one on Saturday, which you cannot say about many other choices in the field.
A common refrain among Super Saver's detractors is that the horse's Derby win was the result of a trouble-free trip, and so they will pick against him. But the horse's tactical speed (he can either sit a little off a hot pace, which he did in Louisville, or stalk soft fractions, which are likely in Baltimore) lends itself to those kinds of trips. Anyone using this reasoning to play against the Derby winner may want to find another angle.
It would be easy for a handicapper to try to "beat" Super Saver, but let's not overthink this. He's the fastest horse in the race, no horse in the Preakness field was better than he was in the Derby and, of the seven new shooters, none has ever turned in the sort of performance that it would take to beat the Super Saver that we saw just two weeks ago.
7 Lookin At Lucky
If Super Saver runs his race, there's only one horse who has so far shown the kind of ability to beat him, and that's Lookin At Lucky. As stated earlier, the beaten Derby favorite had a world of trouble at Churchill and still finished sixth. It was the fourth time in five starts that the horse encountered some kind of traffic, and that prompted trainer Bob Baffert to replace jockey Garrett Gomez with Martin Garcia. The rider switch may be just the thing the colt needs to finally unleash the powerful closing kick that helped make him the two-year-old champion.
Like Super Saver, Lookin at Lucky has raced just three times in 2010 and should have another big race left in him. The question is whether he can allow Super Saver to be closer to what's expected to be a slow-to-moderate pace and still chase him down. The guess here is no.
11 First Dude
Most of the new shooters don't instill much confidence, but the best of the bunch could be First Dude. Despite having only one win in six starts, this colt twice finished within a half length of Fly Down, who was an impressive winner of the Dwyer Stakes on Saturday and should be one of the top choices for the Belmont.
In his last start on dirt, in the Florida Derby, First Dude was steadied but put in a visually impressive rally to finish fifth. Three weeks later he came in third in the Blue Grass (run on Keeneland's synthetic surface) but still only a length behind stablemate Paddy O'Prado.
First Dude has fired two bullet works in the last three weeks, and, according to Dale Romans, has been training well. With his close-to-the-pace running style and very few other speed horses in the race, he could hit the board at a price.
2 Schoolyard Dreams
Arguably the most eye-catching move of the Derby prep season was put in by Schoolyard Dreams around the final turn of the Tampa Bay Derby. In the blink of an eye he went from fourth to first, overtaking Super Saver in the process. The move may have been premature -- Schoolyard Dreams lost by a nose though beat Super Saver by a half length -- but showed the kind of turn-running ability that should come in handy at Pimlico.
He ran a dull fourth in the Wood Memorial, failing to reach the graded earnings to qualify for the Derby, but this six-week layoff may have been the best thing for him as he has turned in two bullet works since. In addition, he'll have a new jockey in Eibar Coa, who certainly should give the horse a better ride than the one he received in Tampa.
Paddy O'Prado (9-2) ran a huge race in Louisville and was within three lengths of the winner. But he has run four races of at least a mile and an eighth since Feb. 10, and that demanding schedule has to catch up with him at some point.
Pleasant Prince (20-1) ran a terrific Florida Derby, losing by a nose to Ice Box despite being closer than that rival to the hot pace. However, in a desperate attempt to get the graded earnings necessary to qualify for the Kentucky Derby, his connections ran him in the Blue Grass (7th) and the Derby Trail (3rd) and still failed to get into the Derby field. The Preakness was never the original landing spot for this chestnut colt, and for that reason it's difficult to think he'll be at his best.
With the defections of all of the early-speed horses, Jackson Bend (12-1) likely inherits the role of pacesetter. He should enjoy racing near the front, as opposed to the rear, where he was in the early stages of the Derby, and if he can get an easy lead he could go farther than his distance-challenged pedigree suggests he can.
Lightly raced Yawanna Twist (30-1), who has run just four times, has much room to improve, but he couldn't get by American Lion when stalking soft fractions in the Illinois Derby, so there's not much reason to think he can do that against a tougher group at Pimlico.
California shipper Caracortado (10-1) began his career with five straight wins, but only one of those came on dirt. How he will make the transition from the plastic to the conventional surface at the Preakness distance is largely unknown.
Dublin (10-1) picks up the services of Gomez, but the D. Wayne Lukas trainee is winless since early September and has been lacking in the stretch.
Aikenite (20-1), Pletcher's other Preakness horse, couldn't catch Hurricane Ike in the one-mile Derby Trial and would have to make a huge improvement to run with this field.
Northern Giant (30-1) crawled home to a ninth-place finish in the Arkansas Derby and has only one win in nine career starts. Who was aboard Northern Giant for that victory? None other than Calvin Borel.
For more Preakness observations, follow Gene on Twitter at SI_GeneMenez and read his post-race commentary Saturday evening.