For fair test of racing, Preakness tops Derby - NBC Sports

For fair test of racing, Preakness tops Derby
Smaller field, absence of long shots help make Pimlico event better
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Lookin At Luckyÿholds off Jackson Bend down the homestrech to win the 2010 Preakness Stakes.
May 19, 2011, 5:05 pm

Those who tune in to Saturday's Preakness Stakes might be forgiven if they feel they've seen some of this before.

As was the case two weeks ago at the Kentucky Derby, a six-figure crowd will descend on a racetrack laid out in the 1870s. Locals will shed a tear with pride as the state anthem is played during the post parade. The winning horse's neck will be draped by a blanket of flowers when he reaches the winner's circle. And then there are the raucous infield festivities.

At first glance the race itself doesn't appear to be too different, either. Three-year-old thoroughbreds will be asked to run 1 3/16 miles, a mere sixteenth-mile shorter than the 1 1/4 miles the major contenders just ran in the Kentucky Derby.

The criticism that the Preakness is a "copy-cat" race might contain a kernel of truth considering European equivalents of the Triple Crown require horses to step up in distance for each successive leg of the series, not cut back.

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Similarities aside, the Preakness has gained a reputation of being a more truly-run race than its Louisville counterpart. This is mostly due to the fact the Preakness rarely reaches its maximum capacity of 14 runners (though it likely will Saturday), while Derby fields of 19 or 20 have become the norm.

While rough trips in the Preakness or any race are still possible regardless of the field size, the chances are dramatically reduced when there are at least a half-dozen fewer horses taking up space.

Another factor that often makes the Preakness more truly run is the composition of the field. While the Derby arguably attracts a disproportionate share of overmatched long shots, few of these wind up traveling to Baltimore for the Preakness.

Those Preakness entrants coming out of the Derby, regardless of where they finished, typically have an edge over the so-called "new shooters" (horses that bypassed the Kentucky Derby), who have been successful in the Preakness only eight times in the past 50 years.

Pimlico has mostly shed its false reputation for being a speed-favoring track with tight turns. Several handicapping tomes written decades ago highlighted an era when Pimlico was a conveyor belt for front-runners, and for generations of horseplayers the notion stuck.

However, the Preakness has never been susceptible to make-the-lead-and-win types. Indeed, Rachel Alexandra's victory in 2009 was the first achieved in front-running fashion in the Preakness since 1996 and only the second since 1982.

As far as Pimlico's mythical tight turns, the advent of satellite technology has allowed everyone from television networks to bloggers to superimpose overhead images of Churchill Downs and Pimlico on top of each other.

While the width of Pimlico's track on the turns might be slightly narrower and the length of its stretch approximately 70 feet less than Churchill Downs', the consensus is that there is no material difference between the tracks with respect to its turns.

Post position is less of a factor at the Preakness than it is the Derby, again due to fewer horses competing. Horses drawn outside in a near-capacity field might be in danger of getting caught wide into the first turn if they fail to show enough speed to get in decent position, but the best horses and riders will typically find a way to avoid those pitfalls.

Turning again to Rachel Alexandra, the super-filly was able to make a short lead after the first quarter-mile despite getting saddled with post 13.

Many horse races are "won on the turn." The Preakness is no exception, and what occurs at the finish can often be predicted by closely scrutinizing the action at this stage of the race. Contenders who travel in mid-pack or far back will start to make their moves passing the half-mile pole, and those nimble enough to seamlessly make their way through a packed field and sustain their rally around the final turn and into the stretch are a good bet to be around at the finish.

Is the Kentucky Derby winner for real? Or will the Preakness be a correction to what transpired in the Run for the Roses? One of the great allures of watching the middle leg of the Triple Crown is that those questions are finally answered.