When long shots such as Animal Kingdom win the Kentucky Derby, they are frequently viewed with skepticism in the Preakness Stakes — and for good reason. The congested fields and sometimes suicidal early pace at Churchill Downs can produce fluky results.
Last year, Super Saver won the Derby with a perfect, ground-saving trip while some of his main rivals encountered serious traffic trouble. He finished eighth in the Preakness and never won another race. Giacomo rallied to win the 2005 Derby after the pacesetters ran a half-mile in a suicidal 45.38 seconds and all of them collapsed. He came to Baltimore and lost by nearly 10 lengths. Monarchos similarly got a perfect fast-pace setup when he won the Derby in 2001 and then finished sixth at Pimlico.
It would be natural to suspect that Animal Kingdom’s victory might be another Kentucky Derby aberration. He had never won a significant stakes race, nor had he ever competed on dirt, before he pulled his 20-to-1 upset. Yet an examination of the race indicates that his performance was legitimate.
In the 19-horse field, the only horse with a significant excuse was the unlucky Archarcharch, who was bumped in the early stages and wound up suffering a career-ending injury. Second-place Nehro and third-place Mucho Macho Man rallied without encountering obstruction. Shackleford got the best trip possible, taking an unchallenged early lead and setting a slow pace before finishing fourth.
The first half-mile of the Derby was clocked in 48.63 seconds, which should have aided the early leaders and put come-from-behind runners at a disadvantage. The favorite, Dialed In, was dead last after a half-mile, and his usual late rally never got him into contention.
“You just can’t win in those situations, but he came with his run,” trainer Nick Zito said. “It was probably the best eighth-place finish in Kentucky Derby history.”
Perhaps the slow pace cost Dialed In a chance to win, but I didn’t believe in the colt before the Derby and I don’t believe in him now. His best speed figures aren’t good enough to win a classic and, despite the appearances of his stretch-running style, he is probably more effective in races at shorter distances than the Derby and the Preakness.
While Dialed In couldn’t get into contention, there was a colt who did muster an effective rally in the slow-pace Derby, and that was Animal Kingdom. By coming from 12th place to win, he was the antithesis of fluky Derby winners such as Giacomo who took advantage of an ideal pace scenario. Animal Kingdom won despite the pace. Nehro, a strong finisher, got the jump on him, but Animal Kingdom was stronger in the stretch.
He was the best horse, a deserving winner, though there is no denying that this was a weak field by the historical standards of the Derby. Of the horses who finished 2-3-4-5 behind him, only one had ever won a stakes race — a Grade II. The time of the race, as measured by speed figures, underscores that Animal Kingdom was one of the slowest Derby winners in decades. So it is conceivable that a new challenger could beat all of the horses coming out of the Derby field.
Two of the newcomers in the second leg of the Triple Crown are potentially formidable. Dance City and Sway Away finished third and fourth in the Arkansas Derby, probably the strongest of the Kentucky Derby prep races. (The ill-fated Archarcharch won it. Nehro finished second before running second in the Kentucky Derby. Fifth-place Alternation came back to win the Grade II Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont.) Sway Away made a strong four-wide move on the turn before weakening. Dance City outran the formidable speedster, The Factor, at a fast pace and held on tenaciously in the stretch, losing by only 11 / 2 lengths. Todd Pletcher’s colt ran at least as well as the two rivals who beat him.
I would have been enthusiastic about Dance City if he figured to take advantage of a moderate pace in the Preakness. But there will be no moderation with Flashpoint entered the field; he’s exceptionally quick, as he showed by running a 44.53-second half-mile in a sprint at Gulfstream Park this winter. Shackleford, too, has plenty of speed — much more than he demonstrated in the Derby. Dance City will be compromised by the presence of these two, and he won’t be helped either by his own pedigree, which is less than ideal for the Preakness distance.
I’ll play an exacta box of Dance City and Animal Kingdom, but I can’t escape the conclusion that a contentious pace on Saturday will work strongly to the advantage of the Kentucky Derby winner.
1. Animal Kingdom. 2. Dance City. 3. Sway Away.