Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Hoping the Preakness Brings Honor to Racing for Once

First a short rant.

It's hard to get excited anymore about horse racing and is impossible to defend a dying industry that's so disjointed, mismanaged and in desperate need of a national governing/oversight body and legitimacy. 

It's an embarassment, magnified by trainer Bob Baffert's reported 30th medication violation -- the latest surrounding Kentucky Derby winner Medicina, er, Medina Spirit. 

I'm not an industry insider, nor gullible enough to buy Bob's "the world's after me" narrative. The excuses, damage control and broader indifference to cheating and deceit are an insult to mine and other racing enthusiasts' collective intelligence and denigrate the integrity of this gambling venue. 

I won't call it a sport. It's gambling and exists solely because of bettors who like the action and merely want a fair shake -- or the appearance of one -- when putting their cash to work. 

For me it's minor disposable income and hobby. Fun money. For others it's more serious. So to come up with excuse after excuse after excuse at increasingly more-regular rates is a disgrace. 

Bob Baffert should be ashamed.

Churchill Downs should be ashamed. 

Pimlico Race Course, owned by the same group with a history of chemist enablers in California, should be ashamed.

The NTRA should be ashamed, with its homepage completely devoid of anything matching its listed tenets. Advocacy, integrity and leadership. Yeah, OK.

Racing should be shamed in front of a national audience this Saturday in Baltimore, but it won't. 

So enjoy the hours of coverage, most of which I'm sure NBC will gloss over and give no thorough examination or criticism as an enabler while we get Steve Kornacki and his khakis giving some fakakta "analysis" because we so miss all of the nightly vitriol from the 2020 election coverage and can't live without all his fabulous charts. 

In the meantime, here's my take on the field for the 2021 Preakness Stakes. 

I'm unsure if and how I'm going to participate wagering-wise, but begrudgingly think the race runs through the "other" Baffert horse, 2-1 favorite Concert Tour, and whether others from a mostly B and C team field of 10 can pick up the pieces late after the Bafferts run ablaze and/or conspire to finish 1-2 before the Triple Crown circus heads north to Belmont Park in three weeks.

2021 Preakness Horses (Order of Preference)

Consistent with the Derby, I've graded horses A (potential winner), B (can win, needs some breaks), C (needs more than some breaks to win; can hit the top 3-4) and PASS. 

#8, Unbridled Honor (15-1): Putting jockey Luis Saez in the saddle is a significant upgrade in a dirt race from the turf-savvier Julien Leparoux, who gave this horse "curious" rides in the Tampa Derby in March and Lexington Stakes in April. The horse's speed figures are a cut below the two favorites, but he ran well enough to win the Lexington, had Leparoux not been a) asleep the first 48-49 seconds and b) followed eventual race winner King Fury along the rail instead of tipping 4-5 paths in the stretch. To me it was a poor decision that cost Unbridled Honor the 2.75 margin of defeat. I also believe trainer Todd Pletcher is adept at finding winning spots for his lesser stakes horses. This is such a case. Grade: A 

#10, Concert Tour (2-1): The rider switch to Mike Smith from Joel Rosario is curious, and a negative, as strange as it sounds. "Big Money Mike" is aboard Concert Tour for the first time, and all he has to do is gun to the lead from the widest stall and hope the speed carries. I think Concert Tour is way more alert from the gate then Medicina Spirit, and showed in the April 10 Arkansas Derby that he's not cool sitting off another runner and wants to head the pack. It's possible he does it on Saturday. Grade: A

#4, Crowded Trade (10-1): People will draw comparisons to 2017 champ Cloud Computing, who won at double-digit odds for the same connections and took a similar route to Pimlico. It's another horse with a beneficial jockey switch (to Javier Castellano from Eric Cancel). Trade doesn't appear to have much giddyup from the starting gate, however, and with sharp breakers to either side, I wonder if Castellano will be equally aggressive and try to sit just off the front-runners or settle midpack, as the horse did in both the Gotham Stakes and Wood Memorial. Castellano's a two-time Preakness winner, including on Cloud Computing. I'd be worried about this one going off as the third choice and think bettors will have to settle for 6-1/7-1, which still isn't bad but short for my liking. Grade: A-

#5, Midnight Bourbon (5-1): Smith rode this horse to a trouble-free sixth in the Derby, but I believe he ran worse than another Preakness entrant and 7th-place finisher Keepmeinmind. Bourbon looks like a potential speed factor on paper, and very well may be put early into the race by jockey Irad Ortiz, another notable upgrade. World-class rider and trainer, but to me Bourbon's not particularly fast nor does anything that stands out as special. He'll be near the front and could get a share, but I just don't think he's a classic-distance winning horse. Grade: B

#3, Medicina Spirit (9-5): If betting against, it's because he'll be uncomfortable chasing Concert Tour, assuming the latter gets the quicker jump. If he does beat Concert Tour to the first turn, it'll be interesting to see if the rash cream, pee-infused oats and/or Baffert's elixir du jour kicks in for the second time in 14 days. I believe he'll instruct both riders to seize the front, slow the pace in the backstretch with the slower starter carring the field wide to prevent others from passing, then see which one hangs on late for the victory and a spot in the Belmont as the other settles for second and heads back to California. Grade: C

#2, Keepmeinmind (15-1): Good Derby effort and one I wanted to translate into a Preakness win, but he's got zero gate speed and it'd be a lot to ask him to close with the same passion as in the Derby to almost finish 6th after being 20 lengths behind. Keepmeinmind competes. I'll give him that. He disproved my Derby thesis just a bit that he didn't belong. But a nonthreatening effort there doesn't turn this one into a contender on Saturday, and after watching several of his replays, Belatedlyinmind might be a more appropriate name. Grade: C

#9, Risk Taking (15-1): The lesser Chad Brown trainee to Crowded Trade, IMHO. A no excuses 7th-place finisher in the April 3 Wood Memorial doesn't inspire here, nor do pedestrian race times. Probably sits midpack as he's another with scant early foot. I'm eager to see him on turf, though, considering the sire (Medaglia d'Oro: El Prado). Irad's brother Jose gets the mount, so at least he likely won't be ridden out of contention. Grade: C/C-

#1, Ram (30-1): The Preakness as a first stakes race is ballsy, but that's veteran trainer D. Wayne Lucas for you. It's hard to put much stock in coming out of an allowance race (several notches below stakes grade), but someone thought enough to pay $375,000 for the horse, and with nothing to lose and the rail draw, an early bid is possible before a lack of class catches up with him. Grade: Pass

#6, Rombauer (12-1): The three or four of you that read this blog can ridicule me after he wins, but the odds are way too short for my taste. Rombauer finished third behind two good runners (Derby contenders Essentially Quality and Highly Motivated) in the Bluegrass on April 3, but the track notes citing he was "bumped" and "in tight" seemed drastic after replays. Rombauer sat third and rode the rail the entire circuit, mostly unbothered and leaking ground toward the finish line. His one stakes win was at California's lesser track, ungraded and on a synthetic surface. Grade: Pass

#7, France Go de Ina (20-1): Gets a great rider in Joel Rosario, but little to get excited about in this horse's 6th-place finish in the UAE Derby in late March. Nothing stood out there. We've been down this road before with the feel-good foreign shipper (connections are from Japan). If nothing else, they'll bring more integrity and class to the race than some of their key U.S. counterparts combined. Grade: Pass (but will be rooting)

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