TIPS TO SORT-OUT PREAKNESS & PIMLICO CONTENDERS
The Preakness Stakes
The Preakness Stakes has been a chalk-players' heaven in recent years, but the second jewel of horseracing's Triple Crown nevertheless should not be overlooked by handicappers and horseplayers looking for value in an important race that is the cornerstone of one of the best racing and wagering days of the entire year.
The Preakness Stakes, the second jewel of Thoroughbred racing's Triple Crown, will be run on Saturday, May 20 in its usual spot two weeks after the Kentucky Derby. With the Kentucky Derby winner and other top 3-year-olds heading to Baltimore for the Preakness, plus more top horses lining-up for a total of 14 other stakes races to be run at Pimlico on Friday and Saturday including five Graded stakes, right about now is the perfect time for handicappers to start turning their attention to Pimlico.
Following a 2017 Kentucky Derby that lacked a clear-cut favorite going in, but featured a potential superstar coming out in the form of impressive winner ALWAYS DREAMING, the Preakness is currently expecting a field of 11 horses. Of the 10 challengers to Always Dreaming, four are coming out of the Kentucky Derby, while the six others are new shooters lining-up at taking a shot at KO-ing the dream of a second Triple Crown in the last three years.
This year's group of new shooters features some interesting prospects, and the more top Derby also-rans that show-up, the better and more competitive the race is likely to be in the Preakness.
Even though the Preakness has not been trending toward longshots in recent years - the favorite won again in 2015 (AMERICAN PHAROAH paid a not-so-bad-in-hindsight $3.80), and the second-favorite won in 2016 with EXAGGERATOR paying $7.20 - the Preakness can still yield good payoffs. Remember that OXBOW won in 2013 and paid $32.80 while keying several good exotics payoffs. In so doing, he proved that a horse still could win the Preakness at a price.
Just because the recent trend in the Preakness has pointed toward chalk, that doesn't mean that astute horseplayers can't make money if they really know the most important factors to look for in the race. To be successful handicapping the Preakness, you only need to focus on a few key trends - including form, post positions, and running style angles - that have pointed to the majority of Preakness winners and exotics horses in recent years. These key factors can help you come up with the main contenders, while at the same time eliminating several money-losing pretenders.
Before we get started, however, I want to address one common misconception that often affects how horseplayers handicap the Preakness. The main misconception is about Pimlico having "tighter turns" than Churchill Downs. The fact is, however, that Pimlico's turns are no "tighter" than any other mile track's layout, including CD. The turns may appear different to other tracks based on Pimlico's steep banking, but Pimlico's home stretch is actually 27 yards shorter than Churchill's.
The reason I mention the myth about the supposedly tight turns at Pimlico is because that misconception often leads to another prominent misconception - that Pimlico is strictly an inside-biased track.
For years, handicappers have referred to Pimlico as an inside speed track, when in reality, for nearly a decade since 2005, they have been only half right. Pimlico is, in fact, still generally a speed-biased track. Early speed horses and front runners (horses on the pace or within 2 lengths of the front at the first call) have the preferred winning running style at every distance on Pimlico's main track. However, in recent years Pimlico really has shown very little statistical indication that the rail, or any of the inside posts for that matter, are any better than any other middle or outside post.
This perceived inside bias, or lack thereof, is important for horseplayers to note when handicapping Pimlico, because the horses drawing the inside posts are almost always overbet due to their post positions. Since the inside posts no longer offer any statistical aid to a horse's chances of winning, however, handicappers are often left with overlay odds on the horses breaking from the middle or outside gates.
There is tons of betting action all day Friday and Saturday of Preakness weekend at Pimlico, and for horseplayers, realizing what the actual biases are - and not the perceived biases - could make or break the weekend for you.
Now that that's out of the way, let's move on and take a closer look at four angles to help you cash your bets on the second jewel of horseracing's Triple Crown - the Preakness Stakes.
1) ACCEPT TODAY'S NEW PREAKNESS REALITIES
Steve Coburn, the owner of 2014 Preakness winner California Chrome, famously had a temper tantrum after his horse's unsuccessful Triple Crown bid in the Belmont Stakes three weeks later. He criticized horses for skipping the Preakness and pointing straight for the Belmont. What he should have been doing, however, was being thankful for all of the good horses that skipped the Preakness that year, because they essentially gave his horse a walk-over at Pimlico as they chose to wait for the Belmont instead.
This is the new reality of the Preakness Stakes, just two weeks after the mile-and-a-quarter Kentucky Derby. There a fewer and fewer Derby losers coming back to run in the Preakness, and more horses pointing to the Preakness as "new shooters" after missing, skipping, or not qualifying for the Kentucky Derby. This is clearly evident again in 2017. Of the 19 also-rans exiting the Kentucky Derby, only four of them are pointing for the Preakness - Lookin at Lee (2nd in the Derby), Classic Empire (4th), Gunnevera (7th), and Hence (11th).
On the other side you have the new shooters, however, often these horses are of inferior quality to the runners in the Derby. This usually sets up a scenario where the Derby winner actually has a much easier assignment in the Preakness than he did when winning the Run for the Roses. This leads to favorites winning, and usually paying very low odds when they do.
Coburn's rant was ignorant, but tangentially poignant when it comes to handicapping the Preakness. In the new landscape of the Triple Crown, the trend is going more and more against horses running in all three races. Every horse points for the Kentucky Derby, and most of the main 3-year-old contenders will run in that race. After the Derby, however, the choice for most horses simply becomes whether to point for either the Preakness or the Belmont, but not both.
What that means in terms of handicapping the Preakness, is choosing between, A) the Kentucky Derby winner - who likely will be favorite - or, B) taking select Derby also-rans, or C) trying the new shooters whose connections feel that their better chance of winning a race will be in the shorter Preakness, as opposed to the much longer Belmont Stakes.
Therefore, one of the most relevant handicapping trends bettors should focus on when making their Preakness picks is where the horse's last race was and how well the horse did in that last race.
Of the 20 Preakness winners from 1997 to 2016, eleven were Derby winners (55%), three had hit the board in the Derby (not including Shackleford in 2011, who at least hit the superfecta), and three had skipped the Derby entirely in order to point directly for the Preakness. The three recent Preakness winners that skipped the Derby - Rachel Alexandra in 2009, Bernardini in 2006 and Red Bullet in 2000 - all exited good efforts in other top races. Rachel Alexandra demolished the field in the Kentucky Oaks, and Bernardini and Red Bullet had finished in the exacta in the Wood Memorial in their most recent races before being pointed directly to the Preakness.
Since it seems to be important for Preakness candidates to have won or run well in the Derby, or to have skipped the Derby to point for the Preakness following a good effort in another top stakes race, horses that have good chances in Preakness based on this angle include the superfecta finishers in the Kentucky Derby, plus select new shooters who finished first or second in a major Grade 1 prep race (including, for example, the Wood Memorial, or the Kentucky Oaks). Other Preakness new shooters, or horses well-beaten in the Derby, are likely are just taking shots in the Preakness, and probably won't be serious contenders at Pimlico.
Betting Angle: The Preakness winner and perhaps the entire Preakness trifecta will be made up of horses either exiting the Kentucky Derby superfecta, or exiting a top finish in major Grade 1 race.
According to this angle, there will be three legitimate challengers to ALWAYS DREAMING in the Preakness - LOOKIN AT LEE (2nd in Ky. Derby), CLASSIC EMPIRE (4th in Ky. Derby), and CONQUEST MO MONEY (2nd in Arkansas Derby).
2) BET OFF-THE-RAIL DERBY HORSES IN THE PREAKNESS
One of the only recent times a price horse won the Preakness was Oxbow in 2013. He was exiting a sixth-place finish in the Kentucky Derby. He was one of the only recent Preakness winners that bucked angle #1, of course, but in so doing, he also breathed new life into another worthwhile handicapping angle that should be factored into your Preakness handicapping whenever possible.
If any kind of horse is going to upset the apple cart in the Preakness, it is likely to be a Kentucky Derby also-ran that was hurt by a far inside post when defeated at Churchill Downs two weeks earlier.
It just so happens that we have a contender in this year's Preakness that fits this angle, and that is LOOKIN AT LEE, who overcame the rail post to run second in the Kentucky Derby.
In the Preakness, Oxbow was getting off the rail in the Kentucky Derby, and everyone who handicaps the Derby knows what a disaster the far inside posts (1-3) are in the 20-horse gate at Churchill Downs. The fact that Oxbow even went on to run as well as he did in the Run for the Roses was a great accomplishment from Post 1, and pointed him out as a horse to bet at Pimlico.
The 2013 Preakness was not the only recent time this "Off-the-Rail" angle worked in the second jewel of the Triple Crown. When Lookin at Lee's sire, LOOKIN AT LUCKY ran out of the Kentucky Derby superfecta but then turned the tables and won the Preakness in 2010, he also had this same major excuse in the Derby. Not only did he break from the Derby death rail, but he also got wiped-out at the start in that race. After the poor beginning, he actually ran very well to get up for fifth in the Kentucky Derby.
Since this angle has now worked in 2 of the last 7 Preakness Stakes, let's incorporate this into the profile of what we're looking for in the Preakness.
Betting Angle: If you can find a horse that is getting off the terrible rail post in the Kentucky Derby, you should bet that horse back in the Preakness (unless they've drawn the rail again in the Preakness). All three inside posts (1-3) could potentially provide excuses for deceptively sub-par finishes in Louisville.
3) BET OUTSIDE POSTS, AND BET AGAINST INSIDE HORSES
The commonly-held beliefs about the negative impact of outside draws in the Preakness are false, according to the statistics from Pimlico in races run at the Preakness distance of 1 3/16 miles. In fact, just the opposite is true, it is the inside posts that are putrid in the Preakness.
Each year at the Preakness post draw, the big story seems to be about everyone trying to avoid the far outside posts. In truth, posts 13 and 14 are rarely even relevant in the Preakness, and a horse can win from out there if they are good enough, just like Rachel Alexandra did from post 13 in 2009.
Not only don't the inside gates hold an advantage over the middle and outside posts in the Preakness, but they are actually disadvantages, both according to statistics from recent Preakness runnings, and from more recent statistics compiled from Pimlico the last few years in races run at the 1 3/16-mile distance.
Moreover, it should be noted that the rail post is the worst place your horse can break from in the Preakness, and is one of the worst possible places your horse can break from in any race all year long.
Handicappers all seem to acknowledge the rail disadvantage in the Kentucky Derby, but mostly everyone overlooks it in the Preakness. This angle paid tremendous dividends in 2013, because it helped to eliminate the Preakness favorite, Kentucky Derby winner Orb, who drew the Preakness death rail and finished out of the money at odds-on.
Of course, this angle came to an end for many handicappers in 2015 when eventual winner American Pharoah won from post 1. But the reality is that a horse like American Pharoah has literally not come around for a generation, and before his winning race, even his trainer, Bob Baffert, seemed concerned that the rail post draw could potentially derail his horse's Triple Crown chances when he said "You don't like to be on the inside."
American Pharoah was good enough to overcome the rail in the Preakness, but most horses are not - even good (but not great) horses like Orb. Other than Tabasco Cat, who was victorious from the rail back in 1994, no other Preakness winner has come from the rail since Belly Ache in 1960.
Even with American Pharoah winning in 2015, there now have only been two Preakness winners from the rail post in the last 56 years!
Cherry Wine hit the Preakness exacta from the rail in 2016, but beyond that it had been several years since a rail horse had even hit the board in the Preakness - exactly one horse had done it in-between Macho Again in 2008 and American Pharoah in 2015, and that was Astrology who finished third from the rail post in 2011. Before Macho Again, the last Preakness rail horse to even reach the superfecta was Lion Heart back in 2004.
The trend against the inside posts at the distance at Pimlico reaches beyond just the Preakness. Going back 13 years at Pimlico, posts 1-2 at the Preakness distance of 1 3/16 miles have an awful record in all races, with American Pharoah one of the very rare winners from posts 1-2 in those races. In 2014, California Chrome (post 3 at odds of 1-2) became the only winner even to break from one of the four inside posts winner at Pimlico at the Preakness distance since 2011.
By comparison, only eight total horses have started from posts 12-13 at 1 3/16 miles in the last 13 years, and two of them won.
That brings us to the subject of the other outside posts that everyone always tries to avoid in the Preakness for some unknown reason. Statistics show that the outside posts have actually been the best places to be in recent Preakness runnings. Recent Preakness winners breaking from posts 8 and outward include the aforementioned Rachel Alexandria in 2009 (post 13), I'll Have Another (post 9) in 2012, Bernardini (post 8) in 2006, Afleet Alex (post 12) in 2005, Funny Cide (post 9) in 2003, War Emblem (post 8) in 2002, Point Given (post 11) in 2001, and Silver Charm (post 10) in 1998.
In 2013, this was a tremendous angle. In a nine-horse field in the Preakness, the top three finishers all broke from the outside half of the starting gate with Oxbow (post 6), Itsmyluckyday (post 9), and Mylute (post 5) yielding a $301.40 exacta and a $2,061.60 trifecta. Boxing the outside half of the field (5 horses) in an exacta and trifecta for $2 each would have cost $40 and paid $301.40 for the exacta, and would have cost $120 for the trifecta that returned $2,061.60. That made the ROI for those two bets nearly 15X bankroll.
Betting Angle: Horses breaking from middle and outside posts have the best chances to win at Pimlico at the Preakness distance of 1 3/16 miles, and usually offer good wagering value in the Preakness because people assume those posts are a disadvantage. Instead, downgrade the inside horses (1-4), and box the outside half of the field in the exactas and trifectas. Toss the rail horse out of the win slot.
4) BET PIMLICO'S PREVAILING BIAS TOWARD TACTICAL SPEED
After post position, the next factor to concentrate on when handicapping the Preakness is running style. In this department, unlike the myth of the inside bias, the commonly held notion that speed and tactical speed are good at Pimlico have proven to be mostly correct.
Exaggerator, Afleet Alex and Curlin were the rare recent examples of horses that won the Preakness with a true late-closing running style.
Last year on a sloppy track mud-loving Exaggerator closed from eighth, but aside from him you have to go back to Curlin, who came from sixth to win the Preakness in 2007 after drawing the terrible two-hole in the Derby. Another notable exception was the dynamic Afleet Alex, who rallied from 10th place to win the 2005 Preakness despite clipping heels and nearly falling. And so, besides Exaggerator, Curlin, and Afleet Alex, every other recent Preakness winner has been on the lead or laying no more than a few lengths off the pace at the first call. Even when Preakness winners of the last 18 years or so came from father off the pace - such as with Point Given in 2001, Red Bullet in 2000, and Charismatic in 1999 - the eventual winners in those cases still could be termed stalkers who were able to make their moves into a pace pressing position on the backstretch.
American Pharoah outclassed the 2015 Preakness field and led wire-to-wire. California Chrome pressed the pace en route to winning the 2014 Preakness. Speed was also king in the 2013 Preakness, when Oxbow won the race wire-to-wire at 15-1 odds, and the other two pace horses in the race, Itsmyluckyday and Mylute, held on for second and third.
The 2012 Preakness winner, I'll Have Another, stalked and pressed the pace about 2 to 2½ lengths behind the leader en route to victory over the front-running Bodemeister. Anyone who boxed the four pace-setters that year would have also hit the exacta and trifecta with third-place finisher Creative Cause.
Betting Angle: Ideally, you are looking for a horse, or horses, with speed or at least some amount of tactical speed, who figure to be on or close to the pace. Give the advantage to speedy horses, pace-pressers, and stalkers, and don't bet horses that must close from further back than mid-pack. Use no more than one off-the-pace horse in your exotics, and limit that horse's use to the underneath positions.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER - BETTING THE PREAKNESS
When we boil it all down, the wise rules of play for handicappers to focus on in the Preakness are:
1) Bet horses exiting in-the-money finishes in the Kentucky Derby, and perhaps one standout new shooter coming off a win or place in a major Grade 1 race.
2) Bet horses that exit also-ran finishes the Kentucky Derby from posts 1-3, unless they've drawn the inside posts 1 or 2 again in the Preakness.
3) Bet horses breaking from middle and outside posts in the Preakness, and downgrade the inside horses (1-4). Box the outside half of the field in the exactas and trifectas. Toss the rail horse out of the win slot.
4) Focus mainly on speedy horses, pace-pressers, and stalkers. Use no more than one off-the-pace horse in your exotics, and limit that horse's use to the underneath positions.
Find a horse, or horses, that fit into all or as many of the categories listed above as possible. Key that horse, or horses, on top. Box the contenders in the exactas, trifectas, and perhaps 10-cent superfectas. Structure your bets to give preference to horses breaking from the outer half of the field. In a big Preakness field, make additional exotics boxes on the horses breaking from posts 8 and out, because those posts are trending far better than inside posts yet almost always offer better betting value. In a smaller Preakness field, box the outside half of the field in exactas and trifectas.
Follow these tips and angles, and you should be on your way to a profitable 2017 Preakness Stakes. Good luck!
By Noel Michaels
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