Preakness Preview: American Pharoah's Triple Crown quest


Preakness Preview: American Pharoah's Triple Crown quest

This Saturday is the 140th running of the Preakness Stakes from Pimlico on NBC, the shortest of the three Triple Crown races at 1 3/16 miles. With a much more compact field of eight, compared to the 18 that started in the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness features four of the top five finishers from the Derby.

Much like the Kentucky Derby, pace is going to make the race in the Preakness. In the Derby, Dortmund went out and carved out the early fractions that were not overly quick.  Firing Line was never more than a length behind Dortmund early while American Pharoah was never more than two back through the opening mile. Looking at the Preakness field, it appears that pace will be very similar to the Derby as none of the new shooters appear to provide a serious pace threat. 

Here’s a look at the field for the Preakness Stakes in post-position order:

1. American PharoahTrainer: Bob Baffert, Jockey: Victor Espinoza

The Kentucky Derby champ is saddled with the inside draw in the Preakness which is not overly favorable as the last runner to win the Preakness from post one was Tabasco Cat in 1994. That being said, the Preakness normally has a larger field than the eight we will see on Saturday. Victor Espinoza gave American Pharoah a perfect ride in the Derby and is familiar with being in this position as he was aboard both War Emblem and California Chrome in the Preakness off Derby wins. There’s only a couple of concerns for American Pharoah on Saturday. First, if the inside of the Pimlico track isn’t the place to be Espinoza will have to get out early, and second is that this will be his third race in just five weeks, a tie for the shortest amount of rest during a three race period for this field with Mr. Z.

2. DortmundTrainer: Bob Baffert, Jockey: Martin Garcia

Dortmund was my selection to win the Derby and he ran a very gutsy third.  Honestly I did not expect him to be setting the pace in the Derby but when he got to the front and slowed the fractions down, I felt he had a huge chance late. He may have been compromised on the first Saturday in May by running in what was likely the worst part of the track as he was inside with late outside moves coming from American Pharoah and Firing Line. In the end he was only defeated three lengths and now shortens up a sixteenth of a mile for the Preakness. I fully expect he finds the front once again and he should play a huge factor in the outcome of this race in the end.

3. Mr. ZTrainer: D. Wayne Lukas, Jockey: Corey Nakatani

Mr. Z became a late player in the Preakness as he was not expected to run in this race. On Wednesday morning came news of the sale of Mr. Z from Zayat Stables LLC (Owners of American Pharoah) to Calumet Farm and next thing we know Mr. Z is entered. Honestly, Mr. Z likely doesn’t belong in here.  After 13 career starts, he is still eligible for a first level allowance race and that’s with more than twice as many career starts as American Pharoah. The trip he received in the Derby wasn’t pretty but while American Pharoah makes his third start in just five weeks, this will be the fourth start for Mr. Z in seven weeks.

4. Danzig MoonTrainer: Mark Casse, Jockey: Julien Leparoux

Danzig Moon was one that surprised me a bit in the Kentucky Derby as I didn’t expect him to run as well as he did. He was coming off an uninspired fourth against only a so-so bunch in the Tampa Bay Derby and then second while wide in a soft Blue Grass Stakes.  He stepped up though in the Kentucky Derby. He raced in the second flight of runners the entire way around and got jostled much of the way. He never folded though, running on to finish fifth. At a price, Danzig Moon could be a threat to upset in the Preakness.

5. Tale of VerveTrainer: Dallas Stewart, Jockey: Joel Rosario

The positives for this one, he gets one of the hottest jocks over the last five years in Joel Rosario aboard, and his only victory came at the distance of the Preakness. That’s about where it ends in regards to his true chances to win this race. Never say never, but the speed figures for Tale of Verve put him 15-20 lengths slower than this field as his closing style isn’t going to help in a race where the pace isn’t expected to be overly quick. He has a spot in the starting gate though, so I guess anything can happen.

6. BodhisattvaTrainer: Jose Corrales, Jockey: Trevor McCarthy

Another new shooter, this one comes with a little more intrigue. While Bodhisattva didn’t compete in any of the major Derby preps, he is a three time winner and is the only one in this field that has won at Pimlico. He controlled the pace in his most recent start over this track and battled back when challenged in the stretch, but if he tries to challenge Dortmund early, he will likely be hanging with Tale of Verve late. His last three races has shown that he is a horse on the improve. This will be a tough task though as he will likely be tucked in behind all those that were competitive in the Derby early while trying to pass them late.

7. Divining Rod – Trainer: Arnaud Delacour, Jockey: Javier Castellano

Another new shooter in the Preakness, this will likely end up being the wise guy horse that many say can pull off an upset. He has never missed the board in five career starts. He finished a well-beaten third in the Tampa Bay Derby behind Carpe Diem but did come back to run onto a solid win in the Grade 3 Lexington on April 11. He’s fresh, not having run since that start, but his style is also going to put him close early, with the likes of Dortmund, Firing Line and American Pharoah. When it comes to the running in the stretch, I am expecting Divining Rod to be giving way as he did in the Tampa Bay Derby instead of rallying as he did in the Lexington. Also, Leparoux, who rode him last out, stays with Danzig Moon. I would have preferred to see Luis Garcia back aboard this one for the Preakness.

8. Firing Line – Trainer: Simon Callaghan, Jockey: Gary Stevens

The Hall of Famer Stevens gave a Hall of Fame ride aboard Firing Line in the Kentucky Derby. Never letting Dortmund get away, Firing Line also raced on the better part of the track at Churchill that day. He ran huge in that race and could get a very similar trip from the outside draw in the Preakness. The main concern for Firing Line could be if Diving Rod chooses to contend early, leaving Firing Line to go wider into the first turn. He’s never run worse than second from six lifetime starts and this distance should suit him nicely.

The way I see the Preakness running could be very similar to the Derby. I expect Dortmund to try to set slow early fractions. Firing Line likely rates close. The monkey wrench could come if Divining Rod chooses to push the pace along early. Keep an eye on the Derby winner early though. I fully expect Victor Espinoza in guide American Pharoah away from the rail and into the clear within the first sixteenth of a mile. In the stretch, I think this race comes down to the four competitive runners from the Derby. While I’ll be cheering for American Pharoah, my money may go to Danzig Moon if he happens to sneak off anywhere close to his 15-1 morning line. In my estimation, the best way to cash though in the Preakness is to box American Pharoah, Dortmund, Firing Line and Danzig Moon. To me, these four are clearly the class of this race.

Blackhawks can't match Oilers' intensity as Connor McDavid leads way in Game 2

Blackhawks can't match Oilers' intensity as Connor McDavid leads way in Game 2

Let's be honest: The Blackhawks dominated the Edmonton Oilers in Game 1. The final score was 6-4, but there was never a doubt as to which team was in the driver’s seat from start to finish.

So going into Game 2, the Blackhawks knew the Oilers would come out desperate.

"We’d be naïve," head coach Jeremy Colliton said before the game, "if we don’t think they’re going to throw everything they have at us."

And that's what the Oilers did. To be more exact: That's what Connor McDavid did.

After scoring 2:34 into Game 1, the two-time Art Ross Trophy winner scored 19 seconds into Game 2 and then again 3:46 later to give the Oilers a 2-0 lead before the Blackhawks even knew what hit them. He completed the hat trick in the second period, giving him four goals through two games so far.

It was clear from the first shift Game 2 would have a different feeling than Game 1. The Oilers, this time, were in control and they followed No. 97's lead.

"They were much better as a team than they were in Game 1, so give them credit there," Jonathan Toews said following a 6-3 loss on Monday. "And to add to the fact, I don't think we made things as hard on them as we did in the first game. So everything we did in that first game, we've got to step all that team game up a notch.

"McDavid's obviously a focus for me, and when we're not making things hard enough for them offensively, then we get ourselves in spots where we end up taking penalties, and you know what happens on the power play, a guy like McDavid's going to make you play. A couple times early in the game, we give him grade A chances and he's not making any mistakes. You know what we're going to get out of him every game, so we've got to be better on him."

You just knew McDavid wouldn’t let his team fall behind 2-0 in a series that easily, especially as the No. 5 seed in their own building. He certainly looked extra motivated to be a factor at even strength after being shut down in Game 1 — all three of his points came on the power play.

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This was a virtual must-win for the Oilers. Only one team in NHL history has overcome a 2-0 deficit in a best-of-five series: New York Islanders in 1985 after losing Games 1 and 2 in overtime to the Washington Capitals then rallying to win the next three.

"Connor led the way," Oilers forward Tyler Ennis said. "He set the tone for us and gave us a spark. That's exactly what we needed, and everybody followed."

Credit the Blackhawks for clawing back and showing the kind of resiliency that helped them win Game 1. They fell behind 2-0 and tied it up at 3-3 before McDavid's hat trick put the Oilers back in front 4-3.

The game got away from the Blackhawks in the third period, where they were out-chanced 10-1. But that what was bound to happen for a team that was playing catch-up all game.

In the end, the Blackhawks won't sugarcoat their overall performance. It was no secret the Oilers would come out hungry, and the Blackhawks simply didn't match their intensity.

"Ultimately, we didn’t play to the level we need to to beat this team," Colliton said. "We knew going into this series it would be a challenge. ... It’s a 1-1 series, I’m sure no one picked us to sweep them. They won a game, now we have to find a way to be better on Wednesday, and we will."

What José Abreu knew was coming: White Sox wins and playoff-style baseball

What José Abreu knew was coming: White Sox wins and playoff-style baseball

This is what José Abreu has been waiting for.

This is what Abreu knew was coming.

This is what Abreu was talking about when he spent the entirety of last year saying how badly he wanted to be part of the franchise’s bright future.

“Something very big,” he said last summer, forecasting what the White Sox were building, “and I don’t want to leave here.”

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He later admitted he never even considered playing for another team during his brief time as a free agent last offseason. Heck, he didn’t even really make it to the winter, signing his new three-year contract to stay on the South Side before Thanksgiving.

He believed in the future. And now he’s seeing it.

The White Sox won their fifth straight game Monday night, a 6-4 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers that was dripping with playoff feeling, the kind of vibe that’s been absent from South Side baseball during the majority of Abreu’s time here. He’s yet to play for a team that’s finished the season north of .500.

But Monday, he delivered the game’s clutchest hit: a two-run homer that sent a 4-2 deficit to a 4-all tie in the seventh inning. A wild pitch brought the go-ahead run home the following inning, and the White Sox were winners.

Abreu’s personal heroics alone aren’t what’s made this year different. Those we've seen before. It’s what’s going on around him.

On the same night Abreu blasted that ball to center field at Miller Park, the young players who enticed him to stick around showed what they can do, too. Luis Robert had a single, a pair of walks and two stolen bases. Yoán Moncada had three hits, including a ninth-inning home run. Nomar Mazara picked up a single in his first game in a White Sox uniform. And Nick Madrigal took a four-pitch walk that ended with that game-winning wild pitch.

Expand the scope to the last five games, all White Sox wins, and there’s a heaping helping of the kind of stuff Abreu knew was coming: Lucas Giolito turning in an ace-like performance last week in Cleveland, Robert and Eloy Jiménez both coming a triple away from the cycle Saturday in Kansas City and Madrigal knocking out four hits Sunday.

“It’s always good to be around this team we have right now, this group,” Abreu said through team interpreter Billy Russo on Monday night. “A lot of energy and passion, that motivates you more every day. … I was looking to make good contact in that at-bat (that resulted in the home run). It was very special. I want to keep doing those things for this team.”

RELATED: Streaking White Sox turn slow start around: 'All these games are must-win'

Of course, what made Abreu’s multi-year contract feel like an inevitability — apart from Abreu saying on multiple occasions that he’d sign himself if the White Sox didn’t put the papers in front of him — was that the relationship was a two-way street. Abreu voiced his love for the White Sox, and they returned the favor, talking about everything he’s brought to the team as a team leader and a role model for the young players.

A lineup that’s been so productive this season is well stocked with members of the José Abreu Mentorship Program. That lineup is capable of doing things no other White Sox lineup Abreu’s been a part of could do. And, whether this year or down the road, that could include the biggest of things.

“Frankly, my happiness for a guy like José will come once we're able to present him with a ring,” general manager Rick Hahn said before Opening Day, “because that's what he deserves based on what he's meant for this organization and his performance on the field. Certainly look forward to, hopefully, the opportunity to do that in the coming years with him.”

Abreu didn’t have to wait long to get a taste of a different kind of baseball, with Monday night’s game — just the 10th of this season — featuring a parade of edge-of-your-seat moments.

One of those intense moments? Abreu’s at-bat in the fifth inning. With Robert on base ahead of him, Abreu fought off one pitch after another in an 11-pitch at-bat. It ended in a strikeout, but it allowed Abreu to see just about everything Corbin Burnes had to offer. Two innings later, Abreu homered off Burnes to tie the game.

"Those at-bats put you in a good position for next time you face the pitcher," Abreu said. "That at-bat was the key for me to get a homer in the next at-bat. I saw those pitches and was prepared for what he wanted to do. Even though I struck out, that was a really key moment and at-bat for me."

That’s the kind of player Abreu’s been all along. Now, he’s doing it in the middle of a potent lineup on a team with realistic postseason expectations.

RELATED: Nick Madrigal's four-hit day shows what White Sox newest core member can do

Intensity was hard to come by for viewers over three rebuilding seasons that featured a combined 284 losses. One five-game winning streak won’t wash all those rebuilding-era losses away by itself, but the White Sox are over .500 and in second place in the AL Central. That’s playoff position in this bizarre season with an eight-team American League playoff field. Fans are starting to get a little giddy, and the players are certainly recognizing a different feel in the clubhouse after they turned around a 1-4 start.

But this is Abreu we’re talking about.

Moncada might be stylish, Robert might be fast, and Jiménez might be fun-loving. But they all have one thing in common learned from their time in the José Abreu Mentorship Program: They work hard.

And so with the White Sox streaking, leave it to Abreu to deliver the most Abreu of messages.

“We can’t get too comfortable. We need to do our job and keep working because we need to get more results,” he said. “This is no time, by any means, to get comfortable and think we are a finished product. We need to keep working.”