By Peter Schmuck, The Baltimore Sun (TNS)
It had to be one of those what-are-the-odds moments for trainer Bob Baffert, and we’re not talking about the fact that Kentucky Derby winner American Pharoah was set as a 4-5 morning line favorite for the 140th running of the Preakness on Saturday at Old Hilltop.
Baffert, who said before Wednesday’s race draw that he is always “post-position sensitive,” ended up with both Pharoah and third-place Derby finisher Dortmund stacked one and two on the rail, with Derby runner-up Firing Line getting the outside post that jockey Gary Stevens said he had been hoping for all along.
So, perhaps Baffert could have been forgiven for launching into a Steve Coburn-style rant about the unfairness of it all, but that’s not his style. He didn’t want to get boxed inside D. Wayne Lucas’ speed horse Mr. Z, but it certainly beat one of the alternatives.
“At least we’re here, going for the second leg (of the Triple Crown) and that’s more important,” Baffert said. “If they had told me, ‘Look it, if you win the Kentucky Derby, we’re going to have to stick you in the one hole at Pimlico,’ I’d have said, ‘I’ll take that all day long.’ ”
Whether starting inside will be a big disadvantage depends on how well Pharoah breaks. The reason that trainers and jockeys don’t like the inside gates is because the rail positions can limit their strategic options.
“It depends on your horse,” Baffert said. “My horses are fast, so they just have to break well.”
If they don’t, there’s the possibility of getting trapped inside and impeded while the outside horses have the luxury of running whatever race suits their individual styles. Stevens obviously considers the number eight position the great equalizer for Firing Line, which has opened as the third favorite at 4-1.
“I’ve got a lot more options, a lot more options than I would have had if I’d drawn down in the one hole,” Stevens said. “If you’re drawn in the one hole, your cards are dealt to you. American Pharoah’s got speed. Dortmund’s got speed and Mr. Z’s got speed, and they’ve got to come away from there running. If for some reason they don’t, then I’ll seize the moment.”
Stevens certainly knows his way around Pimlico. Three of his nine career Triple Crown wins came here, including his comeback victory aboard Oxbow two years ago. He’s the wily veteran in his 36th year riding thoroughbreds, but Pharoah jockey Victor Espinoza is on a roll after winning the first two jewels of the crown last year aboard California Chrome.
“Victor Espinoza is pretty crafty himself,” Stevens said. “He’s been on top of his game here it seems like the last year and half. He makes all the right moves and he’s got a lot of confidence right now.”
OK, so — all things considered — who’s better positioned to win the Woodlawn Vase?
“I’ve got the upper hand where I’ve drawn,” Stevens said. “He’s 4-5, I’m 4-1 and he better be 4-5, that’s all I can say.”
It’s going to be a very intriguing race that could produce a surprise or two. The three horses that came home together at Churchill Downs are the betting favorites for a reason. But there are four longshots in the middle four post positions, which has got to provide an added measure of uncertainty about the eventual outcome.
Danzig Moon (15-1) could be a factor from the number four post position and Divining Rod (12-1) is placed well just inside Firing Line, but their chances obviously depend heavily on how much the unlucky post-position draw affects American Pharoah and Dortmund.
Baffert recognizes the challenge ahead, but it is nothing compared to the difficulty of winning the annual stampede known as the Kentucky Derby. He drew the 18th slot for that race and Pharoah still got the ride he and Espinoza wanted.
“It depends on the horse,” he said before Wednesday’s draw. “They can have a great post, but if they step back or stumble like Bayern last year…He didn’t break and got eliminated and it’s over. All we can do is get them ready and keep them healthy and happy and hope they break well and get good position.”
Photo: American Pharoah via Facebook