“Preakness Thursday” can mean only one thing if you’re in the Baltimore area, and that’s the annual Alibi breakfast at Pimlico Race Course. A tradition going back to the 1930′s, the Alibi breakfast is one of the best kept secrets of thoroughbred racing’s 2nd leg of the Triple Crown. Owners, trainers, dignitaries, and fans gather to honor those who have made contributions to the racing industry, as well as to stir things up with some juicy talk about the upcoming Preakness. For yours truly, it’s the one opportunity of the year to rub elbows with some of the bigger names in the sport, and attempt to learn inside information about the race that is the focal point of my entire year.
First things first, I was not able to fulfill priority #1, which was to meet “Team Rachel.” Jess Jackson did not appear to be in attendance, nor was trainer Steve Asmussen. Instead, assistant trainer Scott Blasi stood in for them. While he may not be as well known from a household name perspective, he was the unsung hero behind the success of Curlin in ’07 and ’08. He mentioned that the filly has looked amazing since he’d been with her and that they can’t wait to run her. In a light hearted moment (the Alibi breakfast being filled with such moments), he answered a question concerning her outside post position in the 13 hole by saying “I just hope Calvin doesn’t forget where he is on the track and try to skim the outside rail.”
One related piece of information that fans of Curlin will enjoy hearing is that yes, Pancho, the horse that travelled the globe with the 2007/2008 Horse of the Year has made the journey to Baltimore to be with Rachel Alexandra. That can only be interpreted as a positive sign, as Pancho is highly regarded for having a calming effect on horses under his watch. To many, Pancho is just as beloved as Curlin, which is really saying something for a horse that has gone almost completely unnoticed to the general public. He’s a silent hero type. Blasi mentioned during his speech that the connections of Rachel Alexandra do worry a bit about what might spook her or cause her to stress a bit. With Pancho by her side, those fears have to be greatly reduced. He’s a special horse in his own right, and his presence with Rachel makes me feel extremely good about her chances of running big on this, her biggest stage.
As for the big names in attendance, there were plenty. Larry Jones was there to represent his colt Friesan Fire, who he said had many wounds from the Derby (his exact words were that some were inflicted by other horses while others were self inflicted). He joked that he never expected the colt to run the worst race of his career on the big stage that is the Kentucky Derby (Friesan Fire finished next to last, beaten by over 40 lengths), but he appears healed up and ready to go. Immediately after the ceremony, he was kind enough to give an autograph to my wife, which only enhances my high opinion of the man. It’ll be a tremendous loss for the sport when he retires after this year. As for the chances of facing the super filly, he mentioned that he had a filly who finished 19 lengths behind Rachel Alexandra earlier in the year, and that after the Oaks he thought to himself that 19 lengths really wasn’t so bad when up against Rachel. For the record, I didn’t have the stomach to confess to Mr. Jones that it was my fault that Friesan Fire had run so terribly in the Derby, having anointed him as my pick after learning of the scratch of I Want Revenge.
Perhaps the most amazing moment of the day for us was that we stood in the breakfast buffet line with the connections of Kentucky Derby shocker Mine That Bird, including trainer Chip Woolley Jr. In fact, at one point Amy even tapped him on the shoulder and warned him that it looked like his wallet was about to fall out of his back pocket. I’ve got to say, Mine That Bird’s connections cast quite the appearance, with their tall Texan cowboy hats, and they were consummate gentlemen. During the ceremony, Woolley joked that he was unaccustomed to police escorts upon arriving to town, and mentioned that “the last time the cops were behind me, I went to jail.” He also expanded upon his comments after the Derby indicating that he felt strongly that Mine That Bird’s victory was a “win for the little guys” around the world, and that while they were sad to lose jockey Calvin Borel to Rachel Alexandra, they were quite pleased to pick up the services of Hall of Famer Michael Smith.
I must confess here that while I was not a very big Mine That Bird fan going into the Preakness, it would be something else to see these guys win. They were arguably the most down to earth and easily approachable of those connected to the Preakness runners. You can tell they are still beaming with pride, as Woolley signed our program with a big “KD 135″ under his name. Yes indeed, Derby 135 shall always be theirs to savor.
Moving on, Gary Stute gave a heartfelt speech about how he had invited his father to see Papa Clem in the Preakness, as he worried this might be his last chance to do so. Papa Clem is named after racing legend Clement Hirsch. Stute’s father is apparently not in the greatest of health. He joked that he “insisted” his family come to see Papa Clem run in the Preakness, but that he had done so before he knew they were up against the filly. On a side note, when first driving past the backside of Pimlico on our way in this morning, I saw Papa Clem galloping about (from the window of our moving car, mind you), and I thought he looked fantastic. Personally, I think Papa Clem is being totally disrespected on the morning line at 12/1 (let me condition that by saying that yes, I understand that’s not the odds maker’s actual opinion and that it’s really just his prediction of how the betting public will wind up). If the public does send this horse out at 12/1, I think it’s a huge mistake. Although it’s one I’ll try to capitalize on at the betting windows.
The moment that will probably stick out the most to those in attendance were the interviews with trainers Bob Baffert and D. Wayne Lukas. Baffert indicated that he thought Pioneer of the Nile would get a good trip stalking behind the early pacesetters (assuming Big Drama goes from the 1 hole and that Rachel goes as well from the outside). He also mentioned that he tried to purchase Rachel Alexandra at one point but that he was “too cheap” and couldn’t afford the hefty price tag. He said that as a fan he was blown away by her performance in the Oaks. Garrett Gomez will be aboard Pioneer of the Nile, and he looks to be one that could be sitting on a big performance. I mentioned this on Facebook last evening, but there can’t be any doubt that he’ll be a part of the finish. At 5/1 he’ll probably be the second choice when they go to post. Baffert also mentioned that he went into the post draw hoping for the 9, 10, or 11 hole, and being as that they got the 9 hole with speed on both sides, he thought they were in good spot.
Lukas was the absolute highlight of the morning. He started by discussing his two 50-1 longshots, Luv Gov and Flying Private. He asked Woolley and the Mine That Bird connections for some advice on how to get things done at 50/1. Then he offered that Luv Gov was named for former Governor Elliot Spitzer of New York, and joked that he had another filly named 9th Client. In the end he said that he didn’t have any delusions of upsetting this field with a 50/1 longshot, but that he’s been in racing long enough to know that if you have horses that you think belong in the race, you might as well run them.
An interesting tidbit for folks who are fond of Musket Man, for owners Eric Fein & Vic Carlson. Mr. Carlson mentioned that while he likes his horses chances, he’d “probably be betting on him to show” against this field. He also mentioned that his girlfriend (as a side note, Mr. Carlson and I seem to have a similar taste in women…just sayin’) advised that her lucky number was 3, so they feel good about the post position. Personally I like this horse quite a bit. It’s kind of hard to separate him, Pioneer of the Nile, and Papa Clem because they finished so close in the Derby. He seems like a fighter though. Plus, I love hearing his trainer, Derek Ryan, talk prior to races. Sadly, I did not see him in attendance as I was hoping to get to meet him as well.
As for the rest of the field, the consensus seemed to be that Big Drama would be forced to go quickly from the inside post position. A little birdie happened to mention to me that Big Drama has looked very impressive in their opinion while working out at Pimlico. I know, I know, he wasn’t one of the horses I was going to play either, but just remember that last year the juicy piece of information I received from the Alibi breakfast was that Macho Again looked much better in training than his odds suggested. I’m just throwing that out there (note, that juicy tidbit about Macho Agian is in the comments section of the post I’ve hyperlinked to from last year).
It also remains impossible to root against a horse like General Quarters and his trainer Thomas McCarthy. By the way, in an interesting fact I had not heard before, it was revealed that McCarthy actually taught former NBA great Wes Unseld in High School back in Kentucky. Unseld of course has deep Baltimore connections having coached the Washington Wizards (technically then known as the Washington Bullets) for years.
Lastly, if you’re looking to play a local angle, than consider that M&D Stables, who are sending out longshot Tone it Down (3rd in the Federico Tesio on May 2), are a Maryland operation through and through….right down to their silks, which are fashioned in the spirit of the Maryland flag. Kent Desormeaux will be aboard Tone it Down, the same man who rode Big Brown to victory so brilliantly last year in the Preakness.
Overall, we wound up meeting, talking to, and getting autographs from ”Chip” Woolley Jr., D. Wayne Lukas, Larry Jones, Vic Carlson, and the connections to Tone it Down. We also ran into some of the NTRA staff that I was privileged enough to meet last fall at the NTRA marketing summit in Las Vegas (and to my surprise, they remembered who I was – even remembered my name!). Along the way we also managed to consume several Black Eyed Susans, making us the proud owners of 4 of the prized collector’s item Preakness glasses. We would’ve made out with more, but that was all we could carry.
I also want to give a HUGE shout out to our friends Tex and Cindy from over at horseracing.about.com. Without them, Amy and I would likely have never even attempted to take in an Alibi breakfast, and what an experience we’d have missed. One final parting shout out here to Carrie Everly, the VP of Marketing for the Maryland Jockey Club. I don’t know that I’ve ever met a host who makes us feel more welcomed anywhere in the world. She goes out of her way to make us feel like we belong. Carrie, if you’re reading this, please know how much we appreciate you. The MJC is lucky to have a person like you in their employ.
Alright….now I just need to rest off those Black Eyed Susans and get to handicapping. I’ll be back later tonight with a full lineup of picks for tomorrow’s races on, what else, Black Eyed Susan day!