Animal Kingdom is just getting started - NBC Sports

Animal Kingdom is just getting started
Derby champion will win Preakness Stakes and move to withinone victory of becoming the first Triple Crown winner since 1978
May 19, 2011, 5:05 pm

There will be no shortage of opinions on the outcome of Saturday's Preakness Stakes, typically the second most wagered-on horse race behind the Kentucky Derby. With dry weather expected, a full field of 14 and a solid but not overwhelming favorite in Animal Kingdom, this edition promises to be a fun analytical exercise.

The first question that's asked at every Preakness is, "Can the Kentucky Derby winner be beaten?" In years where there is an upset at Churchill Downs and several plausible contenders who ran below par, it pays to take a jaundiced view of Derby form. On the other hand, some longshot Derby winners have come to Pimlico and validated the form they showed two weeks earlier.

This edition could play out any number of ways, and it would be no surprise to see any one of a half-dozen contenders reach the winner's circle. Racing luck doesn't play as important a role in the Preakness as it does in the Kentucky Derby because of the smaller field, so the handicapping principles of class, speed and form should dominate the discussion.

OVERVIEW
The Preakness is 1 3/16 miles, only 1/16-mile less than the Derby. Therefore, the emphasis on stamina in the pedigree remains as crucial as it was on the first Saturday in May.

Virtually the entire field has some stamina influences in their immediate family, though three - Dance City, Flashpoint and Shackleford - are by sires best known for their prowess as sprinters during their racing days. Three Preakness entrants are by Preakness winners, while another is by a winner of the 1 3/16-mile Pimlico Special.

This crop of 3-year-olds has not developed a reputation of earning high BRIS Speed ratings, but it's imperative that they've demonstrated ability in the past to earn a figure in the mid-to-upper 90s if they haven't broken the triple-digit plateau yet.

I will break down the Preakness field into three categories, listed alphabetically in each, before arriving at my final selections.

CAN'T RECOMMEND
CONCEALED IDENTITY is arguably the strongest of the Maryland-based hopefuls and enters off back-to-back wins at Pimlico, including the Federico Tesio Stakes. However, by plying his trade exclusively in the Old Line State, he's not yet exposed himself to the stronger elements of his generation. Before his win streak, he struggled in minor stakes at Laurel, and his connections had no reservations running him for a $30,000 tag on his return to Pimlico in an April 15 optional claimer. A win for 80-year-old Maryland horseman Eddie Gaudet would make a great story, but is an unlikely one.

ISN'T HE PERFECT is the most experienced of the Preakness starters with 12 races behind him. Unfortunately, quantity of performance has not been matched by quality. He raced three times in the claiming ranks before breaking his maiden last November, and has only managed to beat starter allowance foes since. He's finished out of the top three in all his past stakes attempts, indeed was never really close in the Gotham, Wood Memorial or Jerome. He would be the shocker of all shockers with a strong performance.

NORMAN ASBJORNSON has fared better than Isn't He Perfect, finishing second in the Gotham and fourth in the Wood Memorial. However, the locally-based hopeful is still a cut below the top contenders from both a class and speed perspective. While the top three from the Wood failed to make it into the starting gate at the Kentucky Derby, the form of the Gotham has to been questioned with winner Stay Thirsty's lackluster performance in Louisville.

FRINGE CONTENDERS
KING CONGIE, one of the better human interest stories in this year's Preakness, has current form that's hard to knock. He's crossed the wire first in three of his last four starts, and narrowly missed winning the Blue Grass Stakes by a neck. The obvious knock is that all of those races were on either turf or synthetic surfaces, and based on what we know of his dirt form (two unplaced finishes) it might very well be the case he's vastly better on those surfaces. He's undoubtedly better than he was early in his career when he competed over dirt, but give the edge to those with positive form on the surface.

MIDNIGHT INTERLUDE can't run much worse here than he did in the Kentucky Derby, where he finished 16th after showing none of the tactical speed he had displayed in California. While trying to become the first horse since 1882 to win the Derby without having raced at age two, recent Preakness winners Bernardini (2006) and Red Bullet (2000) are evidence that the rules aren't as rigid at Old Hilltop. Trainer Bob Baffert has won the Preakness five times, including last year with Lookin at Lucky, but the overall feeling is that the California 3-year-olds were exposed in the Kentucky Derby, and as the Santa Anita Derby winner, Midnight Interlude was their ringleader.

MR. COMMONS broke his maiden in a turf sprint, captured a one-mile dirt allowance, and then ran third in the Santa Anita Derby in his most recent start. A gap of six weeks between starts heading into the Preakness has not been a successful strategy even if it hasn't been used very often, and 42 of the past 50 Preakness winners raced in the Kentucky Derby. Plus you have to go back a long way to find a horse who counted the Preakness as his first stakes win. In addition to possessing the California form that makes Midnight Interlude a suspect candidate, Mr. Commons drew poorly (post 14) for a horse that tends to show some tactical foot. He might find himself either floated wide into the first turn or farther back than usual in the early stages.

SWAY AWAY showed himself to be a dependable late-closing sprinter in his first three starts, but his two-turn attempts have been mixed. Off slowly and outrun over a speed-conducive Oaklawn surface in the Rebel Stakes two back, Sway Away rated closer to the pace when adding blinkers for the Arkansas Derby last time. Making a bold move to the lead inside the final furlong, he suddenly ran out of gas, coughed up the lead and allowed Dance City to re-rally for third. It was an encouraging effort following the Rebel, but not one that will shake the doubts of those who think he might be better around one turn. He must prove he can sustain a bid in to be around at the Preakness finish.

WINNER'S BRACKET
ANIMAL KINGDOM proved he could handle dirt just fine at the Derby. With a turf-heavy pedigree, it's understandable why he didn't receive more support in Louisville despite possessing solid form going in. Now he's the hunted rather than the hunter, and his success in this race will depend on the kind of trip he gets and whether the two-week turnaround proves to be any sort of stumbling block. As far as the latter goes, we just don't see it being a major factor given the reports from trainer Graham Motion. As far as the trip, the fact he was able to close from behind the slowest Kentucky Derby pace in decades suggests the situation should be even more favorable to him on Saturday when the pace is expected to be livelier. A horse that just now seems to be tapping into his greatest potential, the Derby winner seems to have a lot going for him in the Preakness.

ASTROLOGY hails from the barn of two-time Preakness-winning trainer Steve Asmussen, and has been judiciously handled missing a lot of training time over the winter. Instead of rushing him to make the Kentucky Derby as other people unfortunately would have done, Astrology has been prepared to run a peak race at Pimlico. Making his three-year-old debut over a demanding nine furlongs in the Sunland Derby, Astrology turned in a strong effort to be second after tracking a quick pace and leading one furlong out. His effort in last month's Jerome was not quite as aesthetically appealing as he never really got into contention for the win, but he did get up in time for runner-up honors while improving his BRIS Speed rating from 93 to a career-best 98. A horse of some quality that appears as if he'll peak at the right time, Astrology could prove tough on Saturday.

DANCE CITY was remarkable in the Arkansas Derby. Lacking the experience of some rivals, he rated in second not far off a quick pace and remained in the hunt until just inside the final eighth-mile. His no-quit attitude was on display in the final yards as, even when beaten for the win, he re-rallied to defeat Sway Away to the wire after being passed by that rival. While he tends to show a lot of speed, Dance City might find himself in a highly favorable position tracking in behind Flashpoint and Shackleford. If he can avoid being caught up in their potential pace war, Dance City could get first crack at the lead approaching the far turn. What he does from there remains to be seen, but this improving and underrated colt can not be taken lightly.

DIALED IN is expected to get the strong pace in the Preakness he didn't get when eighth as the favorite in the Kentucky Derby. He's also expected to drop far off the pace again as is his custom, which means he will still need to negotiate his way through traffic and get the better of other closers, like Animal Kingdom, who could get an early jump on him. Despite the imposing record of three wins and one second heading into the Derby, Dialed In's form really didn't stand out from the rest of the Derby crowd and he was very much a lukewarm favorite at Churchill. Not much has changed in the intervening two weeks, and while his supporters should get juicier odds this time he might still emit a whiff of an underlay with so many likely to give him the benefit of the doubt.

MUCHO MACHO MAN closed well in the Kentucky Derby to finish a neck away from second, maintaining his record of finishing among the top four for the ninth time in his career. He entered the Derby off a six-week layoff, and though Animal Kingdom was doing the same and was ultimately successful, that might have worked to this colt's disadvantage. Hero of the Risen Star Stakes and third after losing a shoe at the start of the Louisiana Derby, Mucho Macho Man is about as dependable as they come. Trainer Kathy Ritvo continues to be pleased with his Preakness preparation and is expecting another strong performance from the bay, who might find this shorter race more to his liking.

SHACKLEFORD perhaps deserves to be listed among the fringe contenders as nearly every pundit expects him to either be duking it out with Flashpoint on the front end or come very close to doing so. It was the ridiculously slow pace he set in the Kentucky Derby that allowed him to last for fourth when his pedigree suggested 10 furlongs against top company would be a stretch. All that aside, I can envision a scenario where Shackleford might not be as gung-ho on making the lead as many think, and if he allows Flashpoint to do nearly all of the dirty work instead, he could be in prime position to take the baton and run with it as far as he can. This colt showed great courage fending off Derby runner-up Nehro for the longest time in the stretch at Churchill while racing down on the inside part of the track, so I'm not one to doubt his ability to dig deep and fight back when challenged. He's still far from being my top selection, but I won't disregard his chances of being in the exotics frame again.

PREDICTIONS

  1. Animal Kingdom - Benefits from an even more favorable pace set-up than he encountered in the Kentucky Derby
  2. Mucho Macho Man - Proves tough again but falls short of Animal Kingdom again
  3. Astrology - Though sitting on a peak effort, he still might be a cut below the top pair
  4. Dance City - Improving sort should get a great trip but relative inexperience might hurt in the end
  5. Dialed In - Should get the pace he needs to run his best; whether that's good enough is open to debate
  6. Shackleford - A likely pace casualty, but could surprise if he hangs tough again through the lane


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