May 25, 2001

Point Given Bounces Back Big Time, Wins Preakness
Hey, doesn't that headline sound familiar?

Of course it does. Two weeks ago, it was Monarchos doing the rebounding, snapping like a rubber band all the way back to top "form" and taking the Run for the Roses.

Which begs the repetitive question: Was it really form, or just a function of pace?

Put another way, does anyone really feel that Bob Baffert, willfully or otherwise, would send out a "short" horse out on the first Saturday in May, a horse whose physical condition dramatically improved during the fortnight between the first two jewels of the American Triple Crown? Or was there a better explanation for it all?

Consider that Point Given was, for worse than better, hustled from post 17 in the Derby, against a scorching pace, to try to establish reasonably clear position.

He got position, all right. He got box seats practically, and a great, clear view of Songandaprayer's and Keats's and Balto Star's posteriors down the backstretch, and of Monarchos's and Invisible Ink's and a couple others down the homestretch.

That trading of early energy for early position proved to be an unwise transaction by jockey Gary Stevens, and the Hall of Fame rider was man enough to admit it after the race, saying, in effect, if he had it all over to do, he'd have taken back in the Derby and come with one run. Granted, it might not have been enough to withstand Monarchos on the afternoon, but the real Point Given most likely would have shown up and put up a more respectable effort in the lane.

And Stevens made good on all of it in the Preakness. Though the early fractions in Baltimore were nowhere near as fast or contested as those in Louisville, the jockey restrained Point Given early from the outside, 10 lengths out of it after the opening quarter. In the Derby, the pair was less than five lengths from the front after two furlongs.

With a talented, professional horse like Point Given, that was enough. Having already displayed a monster stretch kick against an ordinary pace in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, Point Given this time apportioned his best energy between the half-mile and the three-quarters, gobbling up ground and other horses to be in striking position in the lane. That likely led to his leaning-in and gawking in the deepest stages of the race -- and made A P Valentine's late-run seem more effective than it really was -- but it didn't matter. He showed the benefits of his preferred trip.

As for A P Valentine, it might indeed have been a question of getting back to form, or at least not having such a crazy trip. Spared the traffic trouble he endured in the Derby, the child prodigy made a cameo appearance on the board. Congaree needs more patience. Dollar Bill emerged as the poorman's version of A P Valentine.

And then there was Monarchos. The form pundits will say he merely bounced from the effort, but unless they were equipped with heart monitors, last-second measurements of muscle-mass density and massaged the horse's limbs prior to saddling, they're really only talking off steam, according to MD Mean, our knowledgeable on-track reporter, and AZ Avg, our Turf Paradise correspondent.

As some of the real sharpies (not this corner, unfortunately, not this time, anyway) were commenting before the race, the dynamic in the Preakness was much closer to that in the Wood, a race in which Monarchos rallied well, but not well enough. And they were right. Without a ridiculously wilting pace to claim a half-dozen or so frontrunning-types, Monarchos' task was much more difficult. The front wasn't coming back; it had more punch in the stretch.

Nonetheless, such late-runners as Charismatic and Real Quiet were able to adapt. Monarchos could not. And that's horse racing.

And again this year, the Belmont will not be a championship race, though it could at least contain most of the big stars, unlike last year, when Fu Peg and Red Bullet had to sit out, and the one-race wonder Commendable held off a sluggish Aptitude in what might have been the most underwhelming Belmont Stakes of all time.

Practical Pointer #12
So Point Given, beaten favorite in the Derby, comes back to grab redemption in the Preakness. And didn't Monarchos do the same thing when winning the Derby? Is that sort of turnaround normal for beaten favorites? Or is the paradigm they adhere to more like the one Dollar Bill currently follows?

It depends. There are beaten favorites, and then there are favorites that keep getting beat over and over and over.

The favorites that keep getting beat are your usual suspects -- the professional maidens, the chronic seconditis horses who have a disproportionate number of in-the-money finishes compared with wins, the horses who prefer running over finishing first. Clearly, Point Given and Monarchos fit neither of those categories. But Dollar Bill does.

Beaten favorites are reasonably safe items to finish in-the-money, as long as they're sticking close to the race conditions in which they disappointed as the public choice. Throw in something new and weird, such as a surface switch or major change in distance, and it becomes harder to expect improvement from them.

Additionally, the prices on these beaten favorites aren't going to be ridiculously large, but they're usually not going to be hammered even lower than they were in the disappointment, either.

The reasons for a horse's favoritism are typically obvious -- superior speed, a class edge, some kind of consistency. And when that favorite comes up short, it's rare that, all of a sudden, the horse will altogether lose those attributes that so appealed to the public.

Rather, the horse might simply have had things conspire against him -- bad trip, unfavorable post or pace scenario, freak-out rival. In such cases, the vanquished choice is probably deserving of the benefit of the doubt.

For this reason, two types of races make particular sense in terms of lending themselves to a bounce-back by a beaten fave. Those types are maiden races and conditioned allowance races.

And it figures. Maiden-race winners have to move on, and can't come back to torment the beaten favorite. Likewise the allowance winners.

Claiming races are less certain, given the maneuvering inherent in that class structure, particularly all the rising and dropping that goes on. Stakes races, such as the Derby and Preakness and all the rest, fit somewhere in-between: not as volatile as the claiming ranks, but not as graduate-driven as the maiden and preliminary allowance levels.

In general, cut the last-race beaten favorite some slack, especially if he's not a chronic loser and is now running back under conditions similar to the ones he just failed at.

Practical Pointer #13
Frontrunners in short fields?

A recent scan of frontrunners (leaders at the opening quarter-mile) found they won about 27 percent of the time.

In fields of 6 or fewer, they hit better: 30 percent of the time. In fields of 9 or greater, they hit just below 25 of the time.

Is it a function of field size? Or yet another product of race dynamics?

A little of both, though a measure of the second-place finishes suggests that race dynamics have something to do with it.

Checking a tiny 46-race sample of four-, five- and six-horse fields, there were 14 winners, to go along with 13 runner-up placings. In contrast in those races, the last-place horse after a quarter, ran first or second but 10 times.

Conversely, the big fields take their toll on the frontrunners, especially when it comes to hanging on for a one-two finish. While 20 of the 77 frontrunners in the big fields won, only 10 came in second. You might guess who the culpits are: faster pace, more come-from-behinders who can make headway behind that pace.

While frontrunners are dangerous at any trip, no matter the field size, their vaunted advantage seems to take a bit of a hit in bigger fields, especially on the undersides of exactas and trifectas. Look out for it.

Neat Things to Try
No need for a regular from the Northeastern corner of the United States here, friends. Real excitement and handicapping tools are available for your contest and wagering pleasure.

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Talk at you next time with more real-world handicapping advice and news. Until then, have a winning long holiday weekend.

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