We’re supposed to be talking about the Preakness Stakes this week, and we will, I promise. But first it’s time for another installment of “DQs of Our Lives.”
Since I last wrote about the Kentucky Derby disqualification of Maximum Security last week, several new developments occurred in what promises to be a long-running soap opera.
First the Churchill Downs stewards issued a ruling Sunday suspending Maximum Security’s jockey Luis Saez for 15 days for “failure to control his mount and make the proper effort to maintain a straight course, thereby causing interference with several rivals that resulted in the disqualification of his mount.”
That’s a stiff penalty for an incident in which many, including myself, felt he bore no responsibility, since Maximum Security appeared to shift suddenly to the outside nearing the stretch when he was startled.
Then, on Wednesday it was reported that Maximum Security’s owners, Gary and Mary West, had filed suit in U.S. District Court in Kentucky seeking to overturn the disqualification and reinstate the original order of finish.
I handicap their probability of success as being longer than Mine That Bird’s 50-1 odds in the 2009 Kentucky Derby, but we know how that turned out. And the lawsuit does raise some questions of merit.
Among them, why didn’t Churchill Downs stewards — chief steward Barbara Bowen, Brooks “Butch” Becraft and Tyler Picklesimer — light the inquiry sign, even after they received two separate claims of foul from jockeys Flavien Prat and Jon Court, riders of Country House and Long Range Toddy, respectively? Did they not see the incident or did they just forget to do so once they realized that the outcome of the race was in their hands?
Why did they say they had “interviewed affected riders” before rendering their decision? According to the lawsuit, they failed to speak with either Tyler Gafflione, jockey of War of Will, or Chris Landeros, rider of Bodexpress, both of whom experienced significant trouble.
We’ll see what the court has to say, but the lawsuit highlights how the stewards’ traditional reluctance to explain what goes into their decisions has only thrown gasoline onto this particular fire.
It’s time for the judges to halt the Wizard of Oz act (“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”) and throw back the curtain so that bettors and fans can follow the discussion and see how they arrive at a tough decision. It’s an opportunity for horse racing to lead the way on transparency.
#RJhorseracing featured races
The #RJhorseracing handicappers are tackling the $1.5 million Preakness Stakes, second jewel of the Triple Crown, as well as the Grade 2 Dixie Stakes immediately preceding it on Saturday’s card at Pimlico.
In the latter, the crew is narrowly siding with 3-1 morning line favorite Catholic Boy in his return from a six-month layoff, over Inspector Lynley (7-2) and Admission Office (12-1).
I agree on Catholic Boy, who has a big class edge here and has run well fresh in the past. I’ve got O Dionysus (15-1) in the place slot and Admission Office to show.
With the four horses who crossed the finish line first in the Kentucky Derby — including the disqualified Maximum Security — all passing the 1 3/16ths-mile Preakness, casual fans will likely tune out Saturday. That’s a shame, as the race is one of the most wide-open runnings in years as a result.
The crowd ’cappers are sensing the opportunity for a big score and siding with local hero Alwaysmining (8-1 on the morning line) over 5-2 morning line favorite Improbable and Bourbon War (12-1).
“Obviously likes to win and should be in the mix here,” wrote Andrew Milbrooke of the group’s pick, referring to the Stay Thirsty colt’s six straight wins at Laurel Park.
I’m looking to beat the Derby also-rans as well, but I’ll try to do it with Warrior’s Charge (12-1), a speedster taking a big step up in class for trainer Brad Cox. I’ve got Improbable in second and Anothertwistafate in third.
Kentucky Derby Lawsuit by on Scribd
Ellis Starr’s Preakness analysis
In recent history, the Preakness Stakes has been won predominantly by horses which are on the lead, or a couple of lengths at most from the pacesetter, in the early stages. The recent exception was Exaggerator in 2016, but in that race there was a hotly contested pace which affected the chances of the early leaders and those in close pursuit.
With that in mind, Warrior’s Charge is the horse I give slight preference to among three who I feel have the largest probability to win this year’s Preakness. After third place finishes in the first three starts of his career from last November through February, all when Warrior’s Charge was fifth or further back in the early stages, trainer Cox decided to switch tactics and since then Warrior’s Charge is a perfect two-for-two. After finishing third at a mile in February, when allowed to cruise to the lead of his own accord in his next race, Warrior’s Charge earned a then career-best 103 Equibase Speed Figure, which was a huge improvement off the 87 figure one race prior. Four weeks later when again allowed to set the pace, Warrior’s Charge improved to earn a 108 figure.
Putting those efforts and figures into perspective, likely favorite Improbable earned 109 and 108 figures when second in the Rebel Stakes and Arkansas Derby, respectively, and a 107 figure when fifth in the Derby. Watching a replay of the Warrior’s Charge most recent victory on April 12, it appears he has more improving to do. Some people might be concerned that jockey Florent Geroux, who rode both Warrior’s Charge and Owendale (both trained by Brad Cox), chose to ride Owendale in the Preakness, but since the jockey who rides Warrior’s Charge in the Preakness is Javier Castellano, currently the second leading jockey in North America, I think those concerns can be put to rest.
If the scenario whereby Warrior’s Charge doesn’t lead from start to finish, by virtue of getting into an early battle with another horse, Brad Cox has Owendale to charge home and win. Owendale won two of his first three races around two turns, in September and again in January, before a poor eighth place finish in the Risen Star Stakes in February. Given two months off Owendale returned in the Lexington Stakes last month and put in a powerful and visually impressive rally when going from eighth to first on the far turn and from three and one-half lengths back to two lengths in ahead before continuing in front to the wire. That was a breakout effort which earned Owendale a career best 106 speed figure, 11 points better than any previous race. With a very sharp 5 furlong workout in 59.2 last week to show he is in good physical shape, if Owendale can repeat or improve off his last race, he might give trainer Cox the first and second place finishers in this year’s Preakness.
War of Will once again gets the rail post just as he did in the Derby but that is not nearly as disadvantageous in the Preakness as it was two weeks ago. It must be noted that War of Will does pull his jockey in the early stages which suggests he resents not being allowed to run the way he wants to run, but whereas many horses don’t respond when asked following fighting the jockey, War of Will has enough competitive spirit that he still does respond, and does so well. That spirit, and his athletic ability, resulted in strong wins earlier this year in the LeComte Stakes and the Risen Star Stakes, the first of the two earning the colt a career-best 107 figure. Following the Risen Star, War of Will was sent to post as the prohibitive favorite in the Louisiana Derby, but shortly after the start had something go amiss as he lost his action and was running erratically, resulting in a ninth-place effort. Considering he rebounded from that to run as he did in the Derby, War of Will certainly must be considered a contender to run well enough to contend in this race.
Ellis Starr is the national racing analyst for Equibase. Visit the Equibase website for more on the race or to purchase handicapping products.