Throw out Giacomo.
That's the easy part of handicapping the Preakness.
Yes, the colt rallied strongly to win the Kentucky Derby, and the three previous Derby winners all came back to capture the second leg of the Triple Crown. In view of this recent history, many fans will take the Churchill Downs result at face value. But over the years the Preakness has usually not been a carbon copy of the Derby; from 1990 to 1996, no colt was able to win both.
Frequently, the two races are run in very different fashions, and it takes a clearly superior animal (such as Smarty Jones last year) to handle any circumstances he encounters.
Giacomo is not such an animal. He encountered favorable conditions in the Derby that helped him score his shocking upset. An extraordinarily fast pace took a toll on all of the horses near the lead; the established stretch-runners in the field didn't fire their best shots, or didn't fire at all; with the leaders fading, jockey Mike Smith brought the 50-to-1 shot from 18th place to win.
Similar fast-pace scenarios developed in the Derby in 2000 and 2001, and Fusaichi Pegasus and Monarchos were hailed as superstars after their comeback victories. But their impressive late runs were illusory; both colts were disappointments for the rest of their lives. And Giacomo isn't as good as either of them.
Enough handicappers notice the Derby winner's vulnerability that Giacomo is dismissed as a 6-to-1 shot in the morning line for the Preakness. Afleet Alex, the third-place Derby finisher, will be the favorite -- probably a strong favorite. The key issue in handicapping the Preakness is evaluating him.
Afleet Alex is the most accomplished horse in the field, with more victories in graded stakes than any of his rivals. He has been a consistent performer in top-class company last year and this year. His eight-length romp in the Arkansas Derby was an overpowering performance. He lost the Kentucky Derby by only a length. But . . .
Afleet Alex, like Giacomo, benefited from the hot Derby pace. Jockey Jeremy Rose picked his way through traffic, managed to save ground most of the way and never lost momentum. Perhaps Rose should have waited as long as Smith did to launch his decisive move, but, overall, this was a near-perfect ride. Yet despite the favorable trip, Afleet Alex faltered in the last furlong, unable to outkick either Giacomo or the 71-to-1 runner-up Closing Argument.
Afleet Alex deserves respect because his best form would win the Preakness. But based on the evidence of the Derby alone, it is hard to argue that he is any better than Giacomo. Under the circumstances, taking a short price on him seems unwarranted.
Many of the other entrants in the Preakness are horses who ran poorly in the Derby (Wilko, Going Wild, et al.) and gave no indication that they ought to improve in the Preakness. But two horses ran creditably in the face of adversity at Churchill Downs and figure to perform well tomorrow: Closing Argument and Greeley's Galaxy.
The fast pace in the Derby has been much discussed; it took a toll on the pacesetter Spanish Chestnut and all the horses chasing him. The pace was widely blamed for the defeat of the favorite, Bellamy Road. Yet one horse managed to stay close to the leaders and survive. At the first turn, Closing Argument was within a length of Bellamy Road, and he remained in the first flight of the Derby all the way.
While all the others in the lead pack faded badly, Closing Argument hung tough, took the lead in mid-stretch and repelled Afleet Alex's charge -- only to lose to Giacomo. Though his previous credentials weren't distinguished, Closing Argument delivered the best single performance in the Derby.
Less obvious was the good performance of the 11th-place finisher at Churchill Downs. Greeley's Galaxy was a victim of bad luck from the instant the gate opened. The colt had raced close to the lead in each of his previous starts, but he broke a length slow and immediately found himself engulfed in heavy traffic.
He was 16th in the 20-horse field as jockey Kent Desormeaux swung him wide at the first turn to obtain running room; Greeley's Galaxy stayed wide for the rest of the race. He managed to advance into striking position, within four lengths of the leaders, as he approached the final turn, but he was parked eight-wide around that turn. When he knew he was beaten, Desormeaux stopped riding and put his mount under wraps for the last eighth of a mile. Yet Greeley's Galaxy finished only eight lengths behind the winner.
Greeley's Galaxy has talent; he won the Illinois Derby by nearly 10 lengths in fast time. But he entered the Derby with insufficient seasoning; he had not raced as a 2-year-old, and he had raced only four times in his career. No horse has overcome either of these precedents in the last 87 years. But after his rough-and-tumble Derby experience, he is on a relatively even footing with his rivals.
After the inscrutable result of the Kentucky Derby, any bettor should be slightly wary as he approaches the Preakness. Perhaps this group of 3-year-olds is so unreliable that handicapping them will prove impossible again. But in a field where the most prominent horses appear vulnerable, this race could produce a long-shot winner and a healthy exacta that makes sense. My Preakness picks: 1. Greeley's Galaxy. 2. Closing Argument. 3. Afleet Alex.