Handicappers trying to pick the winner of the Preakness have learned to look past the top finishers in the Kentucky Derby. No Derby winner has triumphed at Pimlico since Sunday Silence in 1989. Often a horse trounced at Churchill Downs comes back to win, as Louis Quatorze did last year; after finishing 16th in the run for the roses, he was draped with black-eyed Susans two weeks later.
The explanation for such results is the fact that the Derby is often a crazily run, illogical race. Because of its oversized fields and frequent super-fast pace, its winner is not necessarily the best horse but the one who benefits from a favorable trip. Because the Preakness is usually run in a very different way, the outcome will be different, too. Anybody who picks the Derby winner to repeat in Baltimore is usually revealing a woeful lack of imagination.
However, the 123rd Kentucky Derby, with a 13-horse field and a normal pace, produced a seemingly logical result - Silver Charm held off Captain Bodgit by a head, with Free House third. Every horse had a fair shot; none was significantly affected by racing luck. Could the Preakness be a virtual rerun of the Derby?
There are only four serious contenders in the 10-horse lineup: the top three Derby finishers, plus the new face, Touch Gold. (Two others, Concerto and Frisk Me Now, are graded stakes winners, but they aren’t good enough to beat the top group.)
Touch Gold has generated some enthusiastic support because of his 8 -length victory in the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland April 20. Some speed handicappers rate the performance more highly than Silver Charm’s Derby win. Touch made a powerful move and blew past a formidable speed horse, Smoke Glacken, as if he were standing still. This is a colt with big things in his future - but those big things won’t occur today.
With only two starts as a 3-year-old, Touch Gold is playing catch-up against the seasoned, fit colts who ran in the Derby. He has never run beyond 1-1/16 miles; the others have been seasoned by going 1 1/4 miles. His only stakes victory came in a five-horse field. History suggests the difficulty of what Touch Gold is trying to do. Since 1984, the Preakness record of horses who didn’t compete in the Derby is 0 for 57.
There is some sentiment here, too, that Free House can improve on his third-place Derby finish. After all, he beat Silver Charm twice in California this year, and he had the most spectacular workout of Preakness week, flying a half-mile in 45-3/5 seconds. David Hofmans, who trains Touch Gold, watched the move and exclaimed, “It was an awesome work. He did it as easily as my horse worked in :48.”
Free House may improve, but can he improve enough? When he beat Silver Charm in the Santa Anita Derby he benefited from a perfect trip and barely held on to win a photo finish. At Churchill Downs he had a fair shot to win and (from the standpoint of my speed figures) ran as well as he has ever run - but still finished 3-1/2 lengths behind the top pair. That’s a lot of lengths to make up on two formidable, consistent horses who are at the top of their game.
The Preakness is apt to come down to a battle between the two colts who fought head-and-head through the stretch at Churchill Downs. Captain Bodgit’s fans think they have reason to believe he can reverse the Derby outcome. He lost his momentum when he drifted inward in the stretch and made slight contact with Silver Charm. Moreover, the comefrom-behind runner was hindered by a slow early pace in the Derby.
I find neither of these arguments persuasive. After the minor incident in the stretch, Captain Bodgit had ample opportunity to go past the leader - and the resolute Silver Charm wouldn’t let him. The pace didn’t compromise his chances, either. While it was not destructively fast, it was honest; the leaders ran the first half-mile in 47-2/5 seconds into a head wind.
Silver Charm was narrowly better than Captain Bodgit two weeks ago, and he can be narrowly better today, too. He will always have a tactical advantage over his rival because he is a versatile runner, with controllable speed, while Captain Bodgit is a one-dimensional closer. I’ll pick Silver Charm - but I can’t bet him. The top two horses are so close in ability that it makes no sense to take a definitive stand on either of them at low odds. The two best horses produced a $31 exacta payoff in the Derby, but the Preakness exacta will be too meager to bet. But even if it doesn’t offer a juicy betting opportunity, the Silver Charm-Captain Bodgit rematch ought to be a memorable one.