May 18, 2001

The Run for the Black-Eyed Susans
The 126th Preakness Stakes goes tomorrow at 6:06 p.m. on the East Coast, and 11 have signed on, 10 of them trying to knock off the reigning king of the three-year-old hill, Monarchos.

Historically, it's been hard to get a price on the win end in this race. The Kentucky Derby horses who survive to Baltimore (and why isn't Balto Star trying to live up to his name in his nominal hometown?) are pretty much known and solid, and even more so in recent years, where three of the past four Preakness runnings were won by your Derby victor.

Red Bullet ended the streak at 3 last year, ambushing Fusaichi Pegasus, but the price was hardly as good as some of the Derby upsets of recent years. And Fu Peg was hardly disgraced.

Indeed, the Derby horses in the Preakness are typically the genuine articles. They're at the top of the heap for a reason: they have talent, and it's apparent when you view it in relation to what the new shooters are bringing to Pimlico tomorrow. The case for a Red Bullet this year doesn't seem as strong.

But that's racing for you, and just when you think you know it all, the handicapping and parimutuel gods (sprung forth from the same family line, obviously) are there to hand you another lesson.

Free will is free will, however, and neither the thunderbolts hurled by imaginary deities from on high nor even the admonitions of all the racing experts (this corner included!) will ever be enough to thwart the horseplayers from casting their fates to the mutuels!

Phew! Thank goodness for that, eh? So without any further nonsense, here is our patented rail-out rundown:

Marciano - Here's your hometown hero, but that doesn't pardon his relatively modest talent. His last two have been better, no doubt, and he has learnt how to show some initiative in the late stages, actually. Nonetheless, he's going to have to step it up in a big way in order to get into the picture this time. If he truly has become a rallier, he should benefit from a much faster pace than he's seen lately. However, getting past a bigger, more talented field is a universe away from getting by three horses in the Federico Tesio. And if the track is moist, that won't be good for him, either.

Mr. John - Did two turns suit this guy, or what? Against a runaway leader (Keats) in the Coolmore Lexington, Mr. John absolutely relished his first real route race, closing ground when no one else could, and earning a stratospheric number in the process. He'll be nicely placed in midpack, and should be right there turning for home. After that, it's a question of whether he's ready for this, and, honestly, he doesn't seem like a repeat of Red Bullet. At any case, he seems to have the best longshot hopes among the horses who didn't run in the Derby. An off track would be OK by him, too.

Griffinite - As much as two turns initially suited Mr. John, it seems to have the opposite effect on Griffinite. He just looks a lot better as a one-turn horse, or as a late-running sprinter, and the ability he's displayed so far is a bit removed from the required level to take this.

A P Valentine - Good horses don't keep getting drubbed. But that's what's been going on with this guy. Take away that sophomore-year aberration at Hialeah, and no one would have any hesitation in labeling him a child prodigy. He's the choice of a lot of wise guys to bounce back here, but that stretches the imagination, even if he did get a horrible trip in the Derby. It's more realistic to say he couldn't close into a setup pace last time and that he won't be close enough to a milder pace in here.

Congaree - Got the lead late in the Derby, and Espinoza panicked like he was drowning inside the eighth pole. It's not likely that new rider Bailey will lose his composure so drastically so quickly, and he did steer Red Bullet to the upset of Fu Peg in last year's Preakness. He will be up-close again, and they won't be going ridiculously fast in front in here. Whenever Congaree is ready, he should be able to go past Richly Blended at will (just like in the Wood), and Congaree should have plenty more in reserve. Whether it's four and three-quarter lengths more is up for discussion.

Richly Blended - Griffinite, meet Richly Blended. Richly Blended should be your leader, but his top-top efforts come from his getting a reasonably clear lead -- around one turn. A clear lead is forthcoming here, but that extra turn becomes the liability, as it was in the Wood when Congaree simply flicked his ears and bade him farewell. Despite a lead and a pace that doesn't figure to be wicked-wild, Richly Blended seems highly unlikely to be able to dispense the gate-to-wire scenario some worry about.

Monarchos - What he got in the Florida Derby, he got in spades in the Kentucky version. And again he knew what do to. This field is smaller, the pace doesn't go as fast, and there aren't as many committed frontrunners signed up like there were in either Derby. While that should spell disaster, there's something about winning in Louisville that propels you to another top effort in Baltimore. (Unless, of course, you're Fu Peg.) Real Quiet and Charismatic, in 1998 and 1999, weren't world-beaters heading into the Derby, and, similar to Monarchos, each had a rallying style he had to utilize in the Preakness, even though the pace slowed down. Now, is Monarchos a little more talented than Real Quiet or Charismatic? Probably. Long story short, it's Monarchos' race to lose, and he doesn't figure to lay down for anyone.

Percy Hope - Unfortunately for him, it looks like the word "no" should be hyphenated in front of the second of his names. He wants the front, but he's never had to deal with this sort of pace. And even if he could, he'd not only have to get faster earlier, but tons faster late. And not even the best horses can often improve in both areas the way this horse would have to. If you're straight-up prop betting the last-place finisher, it could be him.

Bay Eagle - He has a good style for this, and the pace should be enough for him to pick up some of the stragglers at the end. But it hardly looks like he can insinuate himself into an in-the-money finish.

Dollar Bill - He's just not that fast. Yet the true believers (and all the visitors to his Web site) will not be dissuaded! He is all that, as they say in the blue-collar neighborhoods surrounding places like Pimlico and Fair Grounds and Churchill Downs. A head-to-head prop between him and Bay Eagle would be tempting, especially if Bay Eagle was the underdog. Otherwise, you wouldn't be watching out for Dollar Bill, who again should be shuffled back to a midpack finish.

Point Given - How quickly they forget! By the time the masses have spoken, he could conceivably drift up to the third choice in the wagering, off just a single questionable race! If that sounds familiar, that's because it just happened two weeks ago, when Monarchos' to-the-naked-eye lackluster effort in the Wood (second-place) produced a reverse-bandwagon effect in which the eventual Kentucky Derby winner was ignored as sixth choice. It won't be as pronounced for Point Given, but when are you ever going to get 3-1 or 7-2 on this beast again? A tactical, up-close trip this time would work out better, and this time he would be expending less effort in doing so. But if Stevens gets suckered into trying to relax him the way he should have in the Derby, it could be bad. But he's stuck in the middle again this time: he might not be able to flag down Congaree in the stretch, while simultaneously trying to stave off Monarchos' patented rally.

And now for the bottom-to-top predicted order of finish:

11. Percy Hope
10. Griffinite
9. Richly Blended
8. Marciano
7. A P Valentine
6. Dollar Bill
5. Bay Eagle
4. Point Given
3. Mr. John
2. Congaree
1. Monarchos

If nothing else, the gods did laugh at us by creating a rivalry not many could have predicted. Indeed, it was a Baffert horse vs. Monarchos, but not the expected Baffert horse.

In the current installment of the saga (Don King might have called it Monarchos-Congaree III: The War at Baltimore) the fighters are tied, one win apiece.

And if the gods are with us, they'll make sure that it is those two, and no interlopers, who again slug it out inside the eighth pole.

But that's just poetry. In the real world, an honest price in the win pool will be much harder to create. Mr. John sounds enticing at 20-1, but more so in the exotic scheme of things, given the Preakness's notoriously stingy past up top.

A double-digit price on Point Given is probably a stretch, but if it's there for the taking, absolutely.

So, will Monarchos do what Charismatic and Real Quiet and Silver Charm did, and win the Preakness? Or will he throw in the same kind of rallier's regression as Ferdinand's and Unbridled's and Sea Hero's? That's the question.

Pari-mutuelly, the time to cash in on Monarchos' talent was in the Derby.

Sentimentally, it would be wonderful to see Monarchos win anyway -- because he's probably as good as or better than Real Quiet or Charismatic -- and he ought to have the same chance to sweep the Triple Crown.

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Next time, the return of the Practical Pointer, plus post-Preakness prose.

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