Handicapping the Preakness Stakes
Race Favorite Rachel Alexandra Tries to Become First Filly to Win Stakes Since 1924

Liam Durbin
Handicapper, e-ponies.com
Friday, May 15, 2009 3:00 PM

Handicapper Liam Durbin (e-ponies.com) was online from Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore on Friday, May 15 to discuss the Preakness Stakes, the second leg of the Triple Crown.

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Liam Durbin: Thanks for having me back again. It is always a pleasure to join folks for a chat on horse racing. Let's get started.


Fort Wayne, Ind.: Do you think there's any credence to the high altitude angle for explaining Mine That Bird's Derby win?

Liam Durbin: I've never heard that one in reference to horses, but I have with humans. Apparently the Kenyan runners do well at lower altitudes due to their lung capacity.

But if it were true, horses shipping out of these higher regions would all be outperforming their form, and I don't think that is the case.

If it does turn out to be true, better expect lots of new training facilities in N.M.


Toronto, Ontario: According to the weather forecast there is a 70 percent chance of rain tomorrow for the Preakness. Is Mine That Bird that good of a mudder, or did he just happen to catch the golden rail in the Derby?

Liam Durbin: Not sure, I would not want to assume that he ran better because of the mud. But I will say this much - he obviously does not mind the slop. That can't be a bad thing.


Indianapolis, Ind.: Is the track at Pimlico one that favors a horse closer to the rail? I was thinking I liked 'Big Drama' and now that he drew the one spot I'm really thinking I like him.

Liam Durbin: I believe it does favor the rail, but not necessarily for the same reasons as in the Derby. Sometimes the rail is an advantage because the dirt there is not as churned up and soft. Obviously it is a mathematical advantage because it is a shorter trip. But there is also an element of the tightness of the turns. On really tight turns the inside horses have an advantage because centrifugal force carries the outside horses wide much harder. They have to work hard to regain their momentum. It is this third effect that I believe is the case at Pimlico.

Bet you'd never see the word centrifugal in a horse racing chat.


Mt. Pleasant, Washington, D.C.: Any of the longer shots worth a play? After all, a 50-1 horse won the Derby ...

Liam Durbin: Absolutely. Terrain was given very unflattering morning line odds of 30:1. I doubt that he will go off at those long odds, but he will still be a long shot. He has a similar running style to Mine That Bird, and that running style could work well on Saturday.


Changes in horse breeding : Since the physical breakdown of horses has been in the limelight, are horse breeders rethinking how they breed?

And from a non-horse person, why do the Triple Crown horses run so few races compared to 30 years ago?

Liam Durbin: I doubt it. The breeding is pretty important to the sport and I don't think most breeders blame that factor as a primary one. These horses are strong. More attention is being paid to the surface and making it safer and less damaging to the horse so they can come out of races less sore. And some thought is always given to adding more time between the Triple Crown races.


Washington, D.C.: I'll be at the Preakness for the first time and was hoping you might have a suggestion on when to arrive. We're doing the infield thing and are hoping the new rules will tame people a little, but I still do not know when to get there. What time should we aim for? Thank you!

Liam Durbin: The infield needed a little taming in my opinion. It is a few degrees wilder than the Derby and I am glad to see them bring some order to it. We will see how successful they are in doing it. Old habits die slow, so don't put your picnic blanket and your kids in the third turn just yet.

But even if it is tame, if you want prime real estate in the infield you are going to have to get there early. I've camped outside Churchill Downs overnight (in my younger days) to be part of the mad rush to the infield. If you want Boardwalk, you have to make commitments. If it is your first time, recommend you have someone there when the gates open with a big blanket. That person can sprint to the infield and set up camp. Sorry if that is not what you wanted to hear but I'd hate to say 9 a.m. and have you miss out.


washingtonpost.com: Preakness Infield Takes on a New Flavor (Baltimore Sun, May 14)


Springfield, Va.: While the wise guys now say Pimlico no longer has a speed/inside bias, the data I look at (BRIS) says otherwise. Speed horses on the rail have a big advantage at 1 1/16 miles, for instance.

I don't think post matters that much at 1 3/16, but what is your opinion of the speed bias? And what do you base that opinion on?

Liam Durbin: I believe there is still a speed bias when examining hundreds of races like BRIS does. On any given day is it enough to overcome other factors in a given race? I doubt it. If a race is tight and it comes down to that, I'd rather have the rail. But I doubt it will be a primary consideration for trainers and jockeys. If that were the case they would all queue up on the rail every time. Some horses don't like the rail.


Oakton, Va.: For a frequent race goer but awful bettor, what should we be looking at in the first 10 races for keys to victory in the Preakness? Post position? Jockey? Front runners? Seems like the derby winner ran the rail and the rail was fast all day. How do you determine before a race who is going to take advantage of the conditions the way that Borel did?

Liam Durbin: I'd watch the weather forecast first. Obviously MTB's chances will not be compromised by slop but other's might.

On the track, assuming it is a fast track, just look for the races being won in formful fashion. In other words, are the front runners holding their speed as long as you expect (doesn't mean they win) and are the closers making big gains in the stretch. Just look for a normal day of racing.

Let's be clear on what Borel did - you could have asked him five days before the Derby and he would have told you he was going to the rail. It was not a race day decision. It was the right decision for that horse in that race, well executed by that jockey. It is still the right decision on Saturday. It will be up to Mike Smith to execute it.

Not many questions in the queue folks. Bring 'em on!


Washington, D.C.: Why did Rachel Alexander's trainers change their opinions on deciding to have her race in the Preakness? They seemed pretty adamant she wouldn't run right after the Derby, didn't they?

washingtonpost.com: Favored Filly Is Causing Quite a Stir (Washington Post, May 15)

Liam Durbin: I'm not sure if you have it right - or I have it wrong. Please be aware that her owner and trainer changed right after the Oaks. I believe the new owner never had any doubt she would go as long as she was healthy.


Springfield, Va.: Hi again Liam. Regarding the tight turns: Randy Moss, in the process of carefully constructing his pace figures, has placed satellite images of many tracks on top of each other. In particular, he found that Pimlico has no tighter turns than other mile tracks, including (I believe) Churchill Downs. So the "tight turns at Pimlico" wiseguyism is a myth. My opinion is that the hardness of the surface is what makes for the speed bias.

Liam Durbin: Great point. I've never seen that analysis. I trust it is solid.

I don't know enough about the construct of the surface to comment on the hardness. If that is the case, it would speed up all the areas of the track, not just the rail.


Arlington, Va.: Is there any reason for hope for General Quarters? He had a rough Derby buts his trainer is such a good story ...

Liam Durbin: I would not place any extra hope in him for the good story (although I agree it is a good one). I've never made any money betting by poetic justice.

When I Want Revenge was scratched in the Derby I had to make a new pick for folks following me on Twitter. I pulled in General Quarters. He had a really tough ride in the Derby so I don't know if he is good enough or not.

But I do think he has a chance. I'm pulling for Mine That Bird but I hope General Quarters runs a good one.


Washington, D.C.: When was the last time that a jockey from a Kentucky Derby winner abandoned his horse for the Preakness? Has it happened at any point recently before Calvin Borel?

Liam Durbin: I believe it is the first time. But I would not worry about it. Borel has two great mounts to choose from. He made a commitment to the owners of Rachel Alexandra and he has ridden her for most of her wins. It does not mean Borel is bailing on Mine That Bird because he can't win.


Arlington, Va.: So what characteristics make a horse more successful on a muddy track? Does it need to be a stronger horse? Heavier? Shorter strides?

Liam Durbin: Ok, I'll give this a shot but it is a little bit out of my element. I have heard that it has something to do with the size of the hoof and smaller hoofs are better because they don't slide around as much.

Then there is just the horse's preference. Do they like the sound it makes, do they react really badly to having mud thrown in their face? These are things that have nothing to do with breeding and physical characteristics.

I just read the form and look for how they did on slop. If they did ok. I assume they will do ok again. If they have never faced a sloppy track, I ignore it.


It will be up to Mike Smith to execute it: Why is Borel on Rachel Alexandra instead of Mine That Bird? Why would he give up a chance to win both the Derby and The Preakness? Is it really because of his commitment to Rachel Alexandra's owners

Liam Durbin: Yes it is. You know, Calvin Borel has nothing left to prove. He won on Street Sense and again this year. He won the Oaks/Derby double. I think that is the first time it has happened. He's a Hall of Famer for sure. He is a person of his word and I think that is great.


Anonymous: So the obvious question: Who ya' got?

Liam Durbin: I'll be pulling for Mine That Bird for a couple of reasons. For one, I'd love to see a Triple Crown winner and if he can win tomorrow, I'll be in New York to see him try to get it done. Another reason is that I really like his grandsire, Grindstone. He is my favorite horse and I loved that Derby back in 1996. Amazing race. Birdstone (sire of MTB) spoiled Smarty Jones shot at the Triple Crown so I know this guy can go that far.

The last reason is that I think he can get it done. The race sets up well for him. I don't throw my money around on emotion.

I also like Musket Man and Terrain.


Does it really matter?: I can't say that I watch horse racing. Give me a reason why someone should watch the Preakness.

Liam Durbin: Find a way to put some money on Mine That Bird. Find and OTB or open an online account. Just put $5 on him.

I guarantee you won't miss the race then.

It is a great spectator sport too. I know enough to make it no fun, but that hasn't happened. I really love to watch the race unfold and when they turn for home I get goosebumps. Yes. Really.


Fairfax, Va.: Are accidents more likely to occur in races like tomorrow's due to rain and a muddy track? Is it just plain dangerous to be running a horse that fast on a track?

Liam Durbin: Looks scary to me but it is only marginally more dangerous, probably due to jockey reactions more than actual risk of a horse slipping and falling. Jockeys wear multiple goggles just to deal with the mud. THey peel them off one by one through the race. But those same jockeys also limit the sort of moves they will make on an off track just like you drive a bit more cautiously in the rain. To the horses I suspect it is just an annoyance.


Fairfax, Va.: What made Mind That Bird's owners pick Mike Smith? Was there a particularly compelling reason, or was it just that he happened to be the next guy on their list?

washnngtonpost.com: Jockey Smith Gets a Sweet Ride (Baltimore Sun, May 14)

Liam Durbin: I believe he is well known and liked in New Mexico.


Louisville, Ky.: I was at the Oaks and the Derby - both wins were spectacular! I am excited to see Rachel Alexandra and Mine That Bird go head to head (and too bad Borel can't be on 2 horses at once).

Liam Durbin: I was too. It was amazing. Rachel Alexandra passed those horses like she was on a people-mover at the airport and everyone else was walking on the carpet. Amazing. The Derby was a shocker but an awesome trip.

If Rachel Alexandra is as good as the odds maker seems to think maybe Calvin can ride her across the wire and then hop on Mine That Bird, circle the field, to finish the exacta.


Anonymous: Then there is just the horse's preference. Do they like the sound it makes, do they react really badly to having mud thrown in their face?

I think this has a lot to do with it. I've always believed it's not so much that they are "good" in the mud, just that they aren't bothered by mud in their face. Other horses ARE bothered by it, and can't focus on the running. No horse has told me this, though, so I don't know for sure.

You know, it's like people. Some of us are good at screening out noise and stuff, and concentrating on what we're doing. Others can't work as well if there's noise, smells, cold, heat, or something that physically is bugging us.

Liam Durbin: Completely agree. I can see some of them thinking it is "fun" to be slopping around in the mud. Sometimes it looks like some of them are having more fun than others. Smarty Jones seemed to be having fun.


Washington, D.C.: How do non-Maryland horse folks see Pimlico these days? What could be done to bring it back up? I've been to Churchill Downs and, well, there's kind of a difference.

Liam Durbin: Probably politics has a play in this, and responsible ownership. Neither of which have I followed closely enough to say if they are being done well at Pimlico and MJC. It would be a shame if Pimlico continues to struggle. I don't want conversations about the Preakness moving to go anywhere.


washingtonpost.com: Saving Racing In Maryland (Washington Post, May 11)


Savannah, Ga.: What do you think of the school of thought that says Rachel Alexandra still hasn't faced very stiff competition? If I recall correctly her main competition at the Oaks scratched.

Liam Durbin: I agree. My computer program picked her way down in the pack and that is usually the opposite of what happens. When Rags To Riches won the Belmont my computer program liked her a lot because she was so dominant against fillies. My computer says she lacks class. Class is a combination of earnings per start, place of finish, and size of field. Her score there can't hold up to the rest of the field. Just look at the Derby prep season... it is usually large fields of Derby wannabees and plenty of pace in the race to wear down the speedsters like her.

All that said, I saw the Oaks and I would say that her previous races were not good indicators because she simply was not trying 100 percent in winning. She put on a show in the Oaks and we saw what she can do.

I think her outside post hurts her chances, as does the pace scenario. But she is definitely a good horse.


Mt. Pleasant, Washington, D.C.: Looking ahead, who do you see as good horses for the longer distance Belmont?

Liam Durbin: Mine That Bird, Summer Bird, Chocolate Candy, Terrain, and whoever wins the Preakness.


You know, Calvin Borel has nothing left to prove: Don't get me wrong, I love Borel. I just thought it was odd and didn't realize he'd made a comittment. Do they have this stuff in their contacts with the trainers?

Liam Durbin: I'm guessing a bit here, but I just used the word "commitment" somewhat loosely. Could have been verbal or contractual. I'm not sure how these things work but it has to happen all the time that jockeys have more than one horse in a race and they have commitments to both sides. There has to be language in the contracts that allow for them to decide in these situations. So in the end it must come down to his word to some extent and the personal commitment.


Washington, D.C.: If I had to pick between the long shots with 30-1 odds or worse, which one is the best gamble? Assuming Terrain is better than 30-1 by race time, are you better off betting Take The Points, Tone It Down, Flying Private or Luv Gov?

Liam Durbin: I'd take Tone It Down.

But outside of Terrain, I think all of these guys are in over their heads.


Anonymous: Rachel Alexandra passed those horses like she was on a people-mover at the airport and everyone else was walking on the carpet:

But any chance she's burned herself out from such an effort? Do you remember Bellamy Road blowing everyone away, race after race, a few years ago? Seemed like a sure thing on Derby Day, and then he never made a move.

Liam Durbin: He made a move alright, but he was in the outside post in the Derby, which is much worse than the outside post in the Preakness. He was five wide in the first turn and wore himself out trying to get over to the rail and get anywhere near the lead. It was a horrible ride. And he got roughed up pretty bad. Never had a chance. I predicted this to happen and told folks to stay off him. it was too much to ask of him for his running style.

I don't think she burned herself out. She will run her race and will have to be beaten. She was just having fun at the Oaks. Calvin Borel never even showed her the whip.


Baltimore: Is it just me, or is Pioneerof The Mile flying under the radar a little bit? It seems like all the talk is about Rachael Alexandra and Mind That Bird alone. Could Bob Baffert actually have the best horse regardless?

Liam Durbin: Definitely. I'm tossing him out because I think he was fully extended in the Derby. But if I'm wrong, he's trouble for everyone because he proved he can run on dirt and he ran the entire Derby on the pace and still held for second. Most years, he'd be the talk of the town.


Any love for the Maryland horse?: There's usually a Maryland horse in the mix, and I like to throw them in on my trifecta ticket. I had some on Scrappy T the year of Afleet Alex's win.

This year we've got Tone it Down.

Liam Durbin: If it has been working for you, keep doing it. I know it has paid off in the past. I think this year the newcomers to the Preakness are pretty weak with the exception of Rachel Alexandra.


Washington, D.C.: Which of these horses do you see still racing in the fall, if any?

Liam Durbin: Certainly Rachel Alexandra. Pioneer Of The Nile, Papa Clem. If Mine That Bird runs well tomorrow, you'll see him too.


Des Moines, Ia.: I have been reading a lot of articles this past week trying to decide who to bet on and many are concerned for Rachel Alexandra's saftey. It was said that fillies give more effort than the colts do. Have you ever heard of this? With such great colts running beside her is there any reason she might outrun herself? A few articles I saw were looking at Eight Belles and Ruffian and assuming a filly just can't keep up.

Liam Durbin: I reject those theories. I'm not even sure Rachel Alexandra knows what sex those other horses are. She's a big strong filly. The Eight Belles accident could have happened to a colt. It was horrible and it was very strange. I've never seen anything like it. I don't believe it had anything to do with her effort or her gender.

Colts and fillies run together a lot more in Europe than over here. It's tougher for them because they are usually not quite as large and strong, but I do not accept that it is unsafe.


Washington, D.C.: If Tone It Down or Luv Gov won, that would be back-to-back, 50-1 winners in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Has that ever happened before?

Liam Durbin: Great question. I honestly don't know. I will go out on a limb and predict it will not happen. Terrain is the only live long shot in my humble opinion.


Liam Durbin: Thanks again to washingtonpost.com. Please follow me live from Pimlico on Twitter (http://twitter.com/liam_durbin) for live updates and news and my opinion... for what that is worth. Best of luck all!


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