It is not much of a betting proposition, but Chief's Crown figures to win the Preakness on Saturday.
The colt is clearly more talented and more accomplished than any of his 10 rivals. He is so versatile that he can win in any of a number of ways. There is only one plausible way he can lose: if Eternal Prince takes immediate command of the race and leads all the way.
Eternal Prince has the speed to do it, but he is such a one-dimensional front-runner that everything would have to break perfectly for him to win on Saturday. In particular, he needs to be able to take the lead without being subjected to any tough early pressure. I doubt he will be permitted the luxury of such a cakewalk.
There are a number of marginal horses in the Preakness field who do possess decent early speed: Tajawa, Cutlass Reality, Hajji's Treasure, Skip Trial and Sport Jet. None of them is as brilliantly fast as Eternal Prince, but their trainers all are conscious of the importance of speed in the Preakness and they will not passively permit Eternal Prince to have a cozy lead. At the very least, jockey Chris McCarron and his mount will have to work for it.
Furthermore, all the attention focused on Eternal Prince is based on the assumption that he is ready to deliver a razor-sharp performance after his Kentucky Derby debacle.
It is true that the colt got a terrible ride from jockey Richard Migliore and encountered a lot of trouble, but he never showed anything positive at Churchill Downs, either. With a horse like this, bettors might be willing to disregard his bad last race in order to collect a long price. But taking odds of 5 to 2 or thereabouts on a horse who lost his last start by 25 lengths is no bargain.
If Eternal Prince does steal off to a big early lead, Chief's Crown might face the same unenviable tactical situation that he did in the Derby, when he vainly chased Spend a Buck all the way around the track. But with any other scenario, Chief's Crown will control the race.
Breaking from the No. 3 post position, he can stay on the rail and stalk the leaders. If Eternal Prince duplicates his dull Derby performance, Chief's Crown is fast enough to take the lead himself.
Chief's Crown does not enthrall me sufficiently to take odds of 4 to 5. But the way to approach the race may be to play exactas with the assumption (or at least the hope) that Eternal Prince will be pressured for the lead and won't manage to finish first or second.
There is not much depth in this Preakness field, and only two other horses appear capable of finishing second to Chief's Crown -- Tank's Prospect and Tajawa.
Tank's Prospect scored a smashing victory in the Arkansas Derby, and was regarded as a strong contender in Kentucky. But before the race, trainer Wayne Lukas was plainly pessimistic. He said his colt did not like the rock-hard track at Churchill Downs.
Tank's Prospect did finish seventh, but his performance was not really as bad as it looked on paper. He made a good, sustained run for a half mile in the middle of the Derby. Besides the two favorites, he is the only other horse in the field who conceivably could win the Preakness.
Tajawa ran creditably to finish second behind Stephan's Odyssey in the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland. The winner came out of that race to be the runner-up in the Kentucky Derby. Tajawa made his next start in the Derby Trial, but he raced seven-wide around the track and clearly did not care for the muddy surface. Blessed with post position No. 2, he has a long shot chance to finish second.
My Preakness exactas will be Chief's Crown-Tank's Prospect and Chief's Crown-Tajawa. I fully expect to cash at least a modest ticket -- as long as somebody does the dirty work of pressing Eternal Prince early.