As The Smoke Clears

It starts the previous September, October, and continues until the Breeders’ Cup. Then we get a short break until early winter. The preps start in Florida, California, Fair Grounds, and a few in New York. All preps are important along the way, and all must be watched. The Fair Grounds has been good for the Oaks, but the Derby winner can come from anywhere. The runners have returned, and excuses and explanations are given. The trainers look like they went 12 rounds with the champ, and if time allowed, they would be sent to the farm to rest up for a couple months. This not being the case as the next two weeks will begin the talk all over again for the 2nd jewel in the Triple Crown at Pimlico in the 140th Preakness.

I’m a handicapper. That doesn’t mean I have the “secret sauce” to winning every race, but I understand the process of preps, workouts, and the nuances of what is hidden in the past performances. Many have thought of handicappers as “know-it-all’s” who have the answers. Normally this does not hold water, but this running made many published capper’s look good. When the chalk runners live up to the billing, its good for the sport as many bet the favorite and it helps keep the money churning. If you’re a little lost on that last part, the bettors wager, the track gets a cut, and most of the money is paid back to the players. It keeps the betting bankroll growing for the future. Good news. Writers, turf reporters, and bloggers around the world claim to have selected the exact running, and many did just that. Good news again as fans are following the game. Now comes the Triple Crown talk, and for two weeks you’ll read more about racing with the exception of the Breeders’ Cup month.

Trainers have looked over their runners, and most are making plans. According to the Blood Horse, Trainer Bob Baffert said May 3 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) winner American Pharoah and third-place finisher Dortmund would both run back in the May 16 Preakness Stakes (gr. I) at Pimlico Race Course.With trainer Simon Callaghan also committing Derby second-place finisher Firing Line to the 1 3/16-mile Preakness, it would be another showdown among the Derby top three. Historically the Preakness has had smaller fields than the Derby, and the “new shooters” Bodhisattva winner of the Preakness prep the Federico Tesio, and Lexington Stakes winner Diving Rod. You can always count on spoilers waiting in the weeds to jump in fresh and strut their stuff. Just think, these next two weeks will have even the most casual fan reading about racing. Good stuff, and racing needs as much as possible.

Baffert was holding pocket aces, but more times than not, the Derby has been won by the upset horse since 1875. This past Saturday, I felt the best horse won. I may be the only writer in the world that didn’t select the winner. I though he may get knocked around in the crowded Derby, and that is something he never faced before. He stayed off the rail, and most importantly out of trouble. I guess that puts to rest of how far he can run, and it will make trainers think twice before trying to hook the Derby winner. – American Pharoah could not have drawn up a better trip. The fractions were slow and favored a wire-to-wire win for Dortmund, but his stable mate relaxed a few lengths off the pace, allowing jockey Victor Espinoza to push the buttons and guide American Pharoah to victory. I suppose the cappers around the world envisioned a quicker pace and the stalkers and closers would have the final say. When the fractions were announced, I could feel the rocks churning in my stomach. If you missed the “Greatest Two Minutes in Sports,” take a look for yourself.

There was no secret weapon used to win the Derby, and AP lived up to the hype. Baffert played it pretty cool thinking back. Most of us would have been a mess. He rolled in cool and calm. It wasn’t the younger brash Baffert many watched for years. This was a trainer who could block out the noise. No more dancing and talking trash. Maybe it is his brush with a health scare. Maybe he was just convinced, or maybe he knows he’s still holding the cards. Either way, this Baffert was warmly received by the racing world. – Speaking of “secrets,” I was reading an interesting story in Sports Illustrated. On the morning after Pharoah’s one-length Derby victory over California rival Firing Line (with Pharoah’s Baffert-trained stablemate Dortmund in third), Baffert and assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes showed Sports Illustrated the plugs that Pharoah has been wearing throughout a five-race winning streak that now includes his Derby victory. Pharoah’s earplugs are puffy,  soft balls—smaller than tennis balls, bigger than golf balls—that can be purchased at a trackside tack shop or online for about $6. Baffert said that American Pharoah wears the plugs, “whenever he’s outside his stall for any reason.” So, expect to hear all of the pre-race hype, and I’m sure Baffert will be ready to play his pocket aces once again. You can bet every fan in the world will be lending to the noise, but one thing is for sure. American Pharoah won’t be listening to the critics and naysayers.