As the field turned for home in Preakness 135 on Saturday afternoon at Pimlico, Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert got exactly what he was looking for – a little luck. On Thursday morning at the annual Alibi breakfast, Baffert had declared that his only desire was to see Lookin at Lucky “have a chance” turning for home. As if sending us all an omen of what was to come, Baffert also joked around while being interviewed during an awkward moment when he noticed that the cameras were focused on the back of his white-haired head. Little did we know that just a short while later the competition would be staring at the back of his Eclipse Award winning colt as the field hit the wire.
Whether it was the highly publicized jockey switch from Garrett Gomez to Martin Garcia, a better post position, or perhaps just a tad of mercy from the racing gods up above on high is anyone’s guess. No matter which way you slice it, ‘Lucky has firmly entrenched himself atop the 3-year-old division, knocking off Kentucky Derby champion Super Saver in convincing style. Despite jockey Calvin Borel’s boasts that Super Saver would win the Triple Crown, the Derby champion could fare no better than 8th – which winds up as the worst finish of a Derby winner in the Preakness since 1970 when Dust Commander was dusted and finished 9th. Of course, Barbaro’s breakdown still stands as the worst nightmare suffered by a Derby champion in the 2nd leg of the Triple Crown, but thankfully we appear to have avoided the injury bug during this renewal.
It’s amazing how fast the pendulum of opinion in racing can swing in an extremely short amount of time. Two weeks before the 2010 Kentucky Derby, Lookin’ at Lucky was thought of as a “stand out” amongst the 3-year-old division by many racing fans. The colt had encountered trouble in the Santa Anita Derby and fought back for 3rd when many horses would’ve quit, and conventional wisdom held that with a better trip in the Derby, he’d find a way to prove he was the most talented 3-year-old in racing. Then came the debacle of his horrific Derby trip, in which he was essentially knocked out of contention before the 1st turn.
Headed into the Preakness, the racing world was divided into two camps. One thought Super Saver was so far superior that he could not be caught, even on Lucky’s best day. The other thought the colt still deserved a shot and that if he ever got into the stretch without encountering trouble would show the world who he was. I noted in several discussions that this felt quite a bit like 2007 with Curlin and Street Sense, and that though I did feel Super Saver deserved to be favored and given a slightly better chance that I couldn’t help but feel for that underdog role of Lucky, as many of the same angles seemed present this year.
With just a few minutes to post, the odds on the tote board reflected this close division amongst fans, with both colts showing 2/1 odds in the win pool. Super Saver was slightly favored and wound up going off as such at 9/5, but the Lucky faithful seemed to be growing by the minute. When asked, I advised all listening that I was playing them both, as I envisioned them hitting the wire essentially together with perhaps the bob of a head being the difference of separation.
I can only imagine that for his diehard fans the moment Lucky turned for home was eerily reminiscent of my own experience in 2007 when I was there to cheer home Curlin. You KNEW he had what Baffert wanted – a chance – and you knew it was going to take everything he had. Could he summon the will power necessary to chase down the horse in front of him, or would another opportunity to cement his greatness slip passed him? Despite having no personal affinity either way (my favorite 3-year-olds Odysseus, Eskendereya, and Endorsement all having been sidelined with injuries), I found myself subconsciously willing the horse on. I guess there’s that little part of all of us that wants to see grit, hard work, and sheer determination justly rewarded.
When Lucky crossed the wire in 1:55.47, he did so by the slimmest margin since Curlin had nosed Street Sense and Calvin Borel in 2007. The victory also tied Bob Baffert with D. Wayne Lukas for active trainers with the most Preakness victories (5). For Baffert, it was the first since 2002 with War Emblem. Meanwhile, trainer Todd Pletcher, who had only two weeks ago finally got the 0-for-24 Kentucky Derby monkey off his back, is now 0-for-6 in the Preakness.
Of course, some will view the result of the race with a bit of remorse, as Lucky’s victory ensures the continued Triple Crown drought that has plagued the sport since Affirmed took home the coveted honor in 1978. If there’s a big loser from the day’s events – it’s probably the folks at NYRA at Belmont Race Track. By Sunday morning news was confirmed that neither the Kentucky Derby or Preakness winners would be heading to the Belmont on June 5th – assuring an anti-climatic aura of deflated excitement from what might have been had either Super Saver prevailed or one (or both) of the champions this year decided to make the trip.
For both horses though, the decision makes sense. Super Saver just didn’t seem his usual self. Pletcher and Borel commented that they thought the 2 weeks between the Derby and Preakness were too short for him. Of course, it would’ve been nice to have heard the information earlier in the week that NBC relayed as the field was being loaded into the gate that Super Saver had lost weight in between the two races, but I digress. For Lucky the move is equally sensible, as he’s shipped all over the nation and battled ferociously everywhere he’s been. A rest has been earned, and there’s no reason to push the colt further now that he’s validated his 2-year-old champion status.
Arguably the most awkward moment of the entire Preakness was the scene near the winner’s circle as the Baffert clan attempted to storm the old clubhouse for the requisite photo opportunity. Security officials and Bob Baffert could be seen shouting and even using some physical force to push or pull people, sometimes in opposite directions at the same time, as split-second decisions were made as to who was allowed entrance and who had to remain outside.
Oddly enough, Baffert went into the fray several times whilst carrying his son Bode. Former Vikings coach Mike Tice was amongst those allowed in. I guess nobody wanted to squabble with a former NFL player. Personally I should’ve seen the omens as Tice, upon arriving at Pimlico, passed by me with a crowd of Lookin at Lucky’s connections from which several loud “Roll Tide!!!’ cheers erupted at the sight of my “lucky” Bama hat.
Shoulda known, huh?
The surprise of the Preakness has to be considered First Dude. Congratulations if you successfully identified him as a likely pace candidate. For some reason I thought he’d be in more of a stalking position in the early going, and looking back I can already see the error of my ways. The son of Stephen Got Even was widely dismissed at 24/1 (though I’m sure we’ll now be swamped by the Monday Morning quarterbacks all insisting they had him, despite the fact that only a few brave souls touted the horse publicly – including ESPN’s AWESOME Claire Novak - to whom I give much credit and respect for fantastic coverage of the Derby and Preakness), but fought on gamely for a determined second place finish. When the opening half mile clicked off in :46.47, I assumed he’d be fading badly at the wire, but this was not the case at all. ’Dude nearly stole the entire race if not for ‘Lucky’s heart and determination.
With the major players out of the Belmont, the possibility would seem to exist for a rather interesting race being setup behind a front running First Dude, looking to once again steal the race on the lead ala Da’ Tara in 2008, and Ice Box, the dead-late closer that was flying at Super Saver late in the Kentucky Derby. It’s just a shame that most of America won’t be watching due to the lack of a Triple Crown hopeful. That’s okay though – they never seem to know what they’re missing…and maybe there’s something special about the spectacle of horse racing being our own little secret wonder of a sport. Still, I hope that at least some of the fans who beheld their first horse race during the Derby or the Preakness will stick around and become larger fans of the sport. What they saw was just the tip of the iceberg.
On a personal note, I wish to thank the folks from CBS Radio and the Leffler Agency for having me on-site for handicapping assistance. Ironically, I was positioned just across from our good friend Gary Quill – who was providing similar assistance to another group of distinguished guests. We had a blast – and hopefully helped create a few new fans of the game. My top 3 picks that “couldn’t lose” all came home on top, even if they were heavy chalk (Comedero, Blame, and Rainbow View), and technically I can add NorthPoint Costas to that mix as well. The two horses we didn’t have that would’ve made for a day of EPIC proportions were Taqarub in the Maryland Sprint (pace handicapping having killed me again), and of course Strike A Deal in the Dixie – which continues to be my nemesis since that infamous photo of Amy and I being knocked from the 2008 Pick Six by Pays to Dream first surfaced.
The memory that will stay with me forever actually came during Rainbow View’s victory in the Gallorette. Some of our hosts were “lucky” enough to witness a classic “Kevin moment” as she turned for home. You may recall that I had the honor of covering the Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic last fall for the NTRA? Rainbow View was my pick in that race and, despite losing, the filly who most dearly stole my heart. In deep stretch she appeared to be in trouble, but true to her class and style, she thundered home in that final furlong to beat Quiet Meadow by a half-length – all the while with me running amok along the turf rail shouting at the top of my lungs “C’mon Rainbow!!! C’mon baby girl!!!! Show ‘em who you are!!!”