Preakness 2014: Who's Hot and Who's Not as the Triple Crown's 2nd Leg Looms?

Brendan O'Meara@@BrendanOMearaFeatured ColumnistMay 15, 2014

Preakness 2014: Who's Hot and Who's Not as the Triple Crown's 2nd Leg Looms?

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    Rosie Napravnik and Untapable were dominant in the Kentucky Oaks.
    Rosie Napravnik and Untapable were dominant in the Kentucky Oaks.David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    The Preakness Stakes is just a few days away and all the players are in line. And just like the Derby, some are peaking at a good time while others aren't in as good of form.

    With 10 horses contending so far—whether it's a jockey, a trainer or the horse—that's 30 factors, 30 entities that could all be heading in competing directions.

    So, as the Preakness looms, let's take a look at who's on the rise versus the ones flaming out in the days prior to the 139th Preakness Stakes.

Hot: Rosie Napravnik

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    It's no longer a matter of if but a matter of when Rosie Napravnik wins one of the Triple Crown races. She's coming into this race having dominated the Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks aboard Untapable. There's even talk that Untapable is the best three-year-old in the country right now. 

    Napravnik knows how to get a horse to relax and run above its potential. Napravnik gets the mount on Bayern, the Bob Baffert-trained colt that hasn't finished any worse than third in his young career. Napravnik, in effect, won the Derby Trial Stakes aboard Bayern but was disqualified to second after a jockey objection.

    Napravnik returns home to the circuit and the track where she got her start as a bug nearly 10 years ago. This homecoming—and the horse—have Napravnik heating up.

Not: Bob Baffert

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    Bob Baffert and Bode Miller chit chat.
    Bob Baffert and Bode Miller chit chat.Garry Jones/Associated Press

    Bob Baffert has won five Preakness Stakes in his Hall of Fame career. His last win was with Lookin At Lucky, a win that tied him with D. Wayne Lukas for second on the all-time Preakness list. 

    Baffert brought two horses to the Kentucky Derby: Hoppertunity and Chitu. Hoppertunity, the second choice on the morning line, scratched with a foot injury. Chitu pressed the pace and faded to mid-pack. 

    Baffert's Ria Antonia, the 2013 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies winner, finished a distant sixth to Untapable in the Kentucky Oaks, then had the filly taken from him and put into the care of Tom Amoss. 

    It hasn't been the best of two weeks of Baffert, but that could change if...

Hot: Bayern

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    ...Bayern delivers.

    Bayern never raced as a two-year-old yet has never finished worse than third in his four career starts. Trainer Bob Baffert entered him in the Derby Trial Stakes more as a Preakness prep than anything and saw him turn in a great effort. 

    Bayern, in just his third start, set the pace in the Arkansas Derby and faded to third. Bayern was swallowed up at the top of the stretch, but dug deep and created some separation. His Arkansas Derby and Derby Trial prove that when he gets in a tangle it brings more out of him. 

    With Rosie Napravnik up, he worked five furlongs in 1:02 3/5 seconds at Churchill Downs on Monday. 

    "He came out of the work fine and we are ready for Baltimore," Jim Barnes, Baffert's assistant, said.

Not: Billy Gowan

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    Ride On Curlin has had four different jockeys in his career.
    Ride On Curlin has had four different jockeys in his career.Garry Jones/Associated Press

    Billy Gowan is grabbing at jockeys like weeds. He maintains his star colt, Ride On Curlin, is a great horse, but he has failed to break through the top.

    Calvin Borel rode Ride On Curlin to a seventh-place finish in the Derby. Borel strongly angled Ride On Curlin to the fence from Post 19 and then took a very wide trip down the homestretch. Gowan wasn't too pleased. So he pulled Borel from the mount in favor of Joel Rosario. It's the fourth jockey in six races this season for Ride On Curlin. Gowan said

    I don’t think it’s the jockey. All these jockeys are trying to win. They want to win races just like I do. It’s just racing luck and circumstances. He’s (Rosario) a really strong finisher on a horse, and it’s going to take a really strong finisher to beat California Chrome and all these horses. They’re all nice horses.

    So if it's not the jockey, then why is Gowan making a change in over half of the colt's starts in 2014? 

    Gowan has a small stable and Ride On Curlin is a stud. Ride On Curlin is Gowan's meal ticket and he can't possibly know when he'll have another horse like this. As a result, he's shuffling around at every turn. 

    Not hot.

Hot: California Chrome

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    Remember this guy? The Derby winner?
    Remember this guy? The Derby winner?Garry Jones/Associated Press

    It seems like a long time since we've mentioned California Chrome. All signs are pointing to Chrome loving Pimlico and feeling all kinds of good after his emphatic win the Kentucky.

    He went through some easy workouts at Churchill Downs following the Derby. His exercise rider, Willie Delgado, said Chrome is in great shape. Of course Delgado is going to pump his horse up, but unlike many other people, he's got a tremendous feel for the horse.

    "I am amazed at how quick he bounced back from the [Derby],” Delgado said. "I have never been around one that bounced back that quickly. He goes out and does a mile and three-quarters like it’s nothing."

    He's biased and proud of the horse, but riders seldom praise them in that kind of detail. If Chrome feels as fresh as Delgado says, Chrome could be sitting on a big race just two weeks removed from the Derby.

Not: Ria Antonia

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    Ria Antonia needs to return to glory.
    Ria Antonia needs to return to glory.Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    Ria Antonia has yet to get her groove back. She hasn't won a race since the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, and even in that race she won after an inquiry placed her in first.

    She finished fourth in the Grade 3 Rachel Alexandra, second in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Oaks, then sixth in the Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks. And yet here is a filly taking on the boys in just two weeks' time. 

    She's tough to gauge. Is she in this spot because she has a shot? Or is it a move by the owner strong-arming the trainer? The owner did move Ria Antonia out of Bob Baffert's barn to Tom Amoss'. 

    She's hard to like given the circumstances. 

Hot: Calvin Borel

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    While his temper probably isn't as hot as this, Calvin Borel is hot nonetheless heading into the Preakness. Billy Gowan, displeased with Borel's ride on Ride On Curlin in the Derby, took Borel off the horse for the Preakness. Gowan has yet to realize that his horse just isn't that good. He's nice and all, but a Grade 1 winner? Probably not.

    Borel, as a result, hooks up with Ria Antonia, the embattled filly in this field. Borel knows a thing or two about winning this race aboard a filly. See above.

    It was five years ago when he won this race breaking from Post 13 aboard eventual Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra. It's foolish to think Ria Antonia is half the horse of Rachel Alexandra (though they do have the same initials. Counts for something, right?). But if there's ever the right connection to get the filly to run the best against the boys, Borel's the man.

Not: Stuart Janney III

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    Stuart Janney III, center, thinks the Triple Crown should be amended.
    Stuart Janney III, center, thinks the Triple Crown should be amended.Diane Bondareff/Associated Press

    Stuart Janney III, part owner of last year's Kentucky Derby winner Orb, wants to see the Triple Crown format changed. He's not alone, but it's a losing battle. 

    For well over 100 years, the Triple Crown has been Derby (two weeks), Preakness (three weeks), Belmont. It's what the previous 11 Triple Crown winners accomplished, and as recently as 1998 and 2004, the Triple Crown has been missed by the shortest of margins. 

    Janney told  that:

    I think it would help training patterns, because trainers now are more comfortable giving horses a bit more time trying to produce what they would hope would be a peak effort. And I don't think at this point they're comfortable running in the Preakness the way they have been in the past. What you are seeing again this year is that a lot of trainers just skip the Preakness and run the Belmont because they think they get an advantage having the horse rested for that period of time. Certainly, that's [Todd] Pletcher's strategy.

    Janney would like to see four weeks between all the races. It makes sense logically, but the Triple Crown isn't built around logic, but around history. It wouldn't be the Triple Crown anymore if it were three races in 12 weeks instead of three races in five. It would still be a challenge, of course, but a nice juicy asterisk would be waiting for the horses that win that Triple Crown.

    Would we be having this conversation if Real Quiet or Smarty Jones won the Triple Crown as they almost did? Probably not. 

Hot: Social Inclusion

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    Social Inclusion is hot heading into the Preakness.
    Social Inclusion is hot heading into the Preakness.Uncredited/Associated Press

    Social Inclusion is a late bloomer. He was born in the latter part of the breeding season, which put him at a disadvantage to train up to the major two-year-old stakes. He didn't even get to trainer Manny Azpurua's barn until Dec. 15, 2013.

    The Preakness will be his fourth career start, so he'll be super fresh. He ran a great Wood Memorial to finish third in just his third start. 

    His trainer likes where he's going.

    "He was a big horse. Now he’s bigger and stronger,” Azpurua said. “When you’re patient with a horse, they give back."

Not: The 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th-Place Derby Finishers

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    Danza is just one of many top Derby horses that could've made a splash in the Preakness.
    Danza is just one of many top Derby horses that could've made a splash in the Preakness.Morry Gash/Associated Press

    The past few years have seen great, and I mean great, efforts from some of the top Derby finishers. There's 2011 when Animal Kingdom, the Derby winner, and Shackleford, fourth place in the Derby, hooked up in the homestretch at Pimlico for an epic duel. Shackleford won one for the ages.

    In 2012, I'll Have Another and Bodemeister did the same thing. I'll Have Another ran him down in the Derby and Preakness. They were 1-2 in both races...on two weeks' rest.

    This year? Debry finishers two through six all skipped the Preakness. Why? It's over $1 million and they'll probably run huge. Most Derby runners do well. So Commanding Curve, Danza, Wicked Strong, Samraat and Dance With Fate all passed, wanting rest. 

    If you believe Andrew Beyer of The Washington Post , two weeks' rest shouldn't be a problem despite trainers' fears:

    Kentucky Derby winners regularly come back to deliver smashing performances in Baltimore: Funny Cide (2003) won by nearly 10 lengths, Smarty Jones (2004) won by 111 / Big Brown (2008) by 51 / 2. In 2012 I’ll Have Another and Bodemeister finished 1-2 in the Derby, then ran much faster in the Preakness and finished 1-2 again. None of them bounced. When Derby winners have flopped in Baltimore — such as Orb in 2013■ and Super Saver in 2010 — the explanation may be that they benefited from perfect trips at Churchill and didn’t get such an easy setup at Pimlico.

    At least one of them should be at Pimlico, but alas, none of them are.