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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

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

President Trump and former Vice President Biden at first 2020 presidential debate

Screenshot from C-Span YouTube

Reprinted with permission from DailyKos

Donald Trump is claiming that he will still debate despite the rule change that will cut off the candidates' microphones while their opponent delivers his initial two-minute response to each of the debate's topics. But everything else Trump and his campaign are saying sounds like they're laying the groundwork to back out.

"I will participate," Trump told reporters Monday night. "But it's very unfair that they changed the topics and it's very unfair that again we have an anchor who's totally biased." At his Arizona rally Monday, Trump attacked moderator Kristen Welker as a "radical Democrat" and claimed she had "deleted her entire account," which is false. Trump's campaign manager, Bill Stepien, went further in his whining about the debate.

Stepien touted a letter to the Commission on Presidential Debates as "Our letter to the BDC (Biden Debate Commission)." That letter came before the CPD announced that it would mute microphones for portions of the debate in response to Trump's constant interruptions at the first debate, though Stepien knew such a decision was likely coming, writing, "It is our understanding from media reports that you will soon be holding an internal meeting to discuss other possible rule changes, such as granting an unnamed person the ability to shut off a candidate's microphone. It is completely unacceptable for anyone to wield such power, and a decision to proceed with that change amounts to turning further editorial control of the debate over to the Commission which has already demonstrated its partiality to Biden."

Shooooot, here I thought it was generous to Trump that the microphones will only be cut to give each candidate two uninterrupted minutes, leaving Trump the remainder of each 15-minute debate segment to interrupt.

But what did Stepien mean by "other possible rule changes," you ask? What was the first rule change? Well, it wasn't one. Stepien wrote to strongly complain that "We write with great concern over the announced topics for what was always billed as the 'Foreign Policy Debate' in the series of events agreed to by both the Trump campaign and the Biden campaign many months ago." Welker's announced topics include "Fighting COVID-19, American families, Race in America, Climate Change, National Security, and Leadership," Stepien complained, using this as a launching pad to attack Biden on foreign policy.

Except this debate was never billed as a foreign policy debate. It's true that in past years, the third debate has sometimes focused on foreign policy, but here in 2020, the CPD's original announcement of debate formats and moderators said of the third debate, "The format for the debate will be identical to the first presidential debate," and the first debate "will be divided into six segments of approximately 15 minutes each on major topics to be selected by the moderator."

So even before the CPD finalized the decision to prevent Trump from interrupting for two minutes in each of six segments, so 12 minutes out of a 90-minute debate, Team Trump was falsely complaining that the debate was rigged. No wonder—as a Biden campaign spokesman noted, the Trump campaign is upset "because Donald Trump is afraid to face more questions about his disastrous Covid response."

Trump has lost one debate and backed out of one debate. If he goes into this one with the attitude he's showing now—attacking the moderator, attacking the topics, enraged that he can't interrupt for two entire minutes at a time—he's going to lose this one, badly, once again hurting his already weak reelection prospects. So which will it be? Back out and have that be the story, or alienate one of the largest audiences of the entire presidential campaign by showing what kind of person he is?