When a Kentucky Derby winner comes to Pimlico for the Preakness, the media hail him and describe him as a potential superstar. But bettors typically regard the horse with skepticism.
They do so because some of the best wagers come from identifying overhyped, overbet favorites, and such opportunities often arise in the Triple Crown series. The Derby is frequently won by a horse blessed with racing luck, while the Preakness often produces a different scenario and a different result. In eight of the last 20 years, a horse finishing out of the money at Churchill Downs went on to capture the Preakness.
So handicappers will look for signs of vulnerability in the media's latest darling, Smarty Jones, even though he is the first undefeated Derby winner since Seattle Slew in 1977. Here is the contrarian view of his perfect 7-for-7 record:
Smarty Jones won his first six races dominating inferior competition. He ran no faster than some of the other top colts of his generation, and he was no standout in the Derby. But when a monsoon inundated Churchill Downs an hour before post time, it created a speed-favoring sloppy track. Lion Heart raced to the early lead; Smarty Jones chased him and overhauled him in the stretch; not a single stretch-runner ever got into contention. The result wasn't a true bill of the horses' ability.
Will Smarty Jones have a tougher trip in the Preakness than he did in the Derby?
When a speed horse wins the Derby, stretch-runners sometimes dominate the Preakness, because rival jockeys and trainers are not to let the leaders get away with a slow pace. Yet this year it appears that the two classics will be run in similar fashion.
Lion Heart and Smarty Jones were the fastest horses in the Derby field, and they outran their rivals by setting an honest pace. The first half-mile of 46.73 seconds was a quick time on the sloppy surface. Unless longshot Sir Shackleton goes on a suicide mission in the early stages of the Preakness, Lion Heart and Smarty Jones are unlikely to face more pressure than they did at Churchill Downs. The tractable Smarty Jones will be sitting second or third, and he seems likely to enjoy a good trip again. Anybody who beats him is going to have to be a superior horse. Are any of his rivals good enough to beat the favorite?
Five new challengers -- horses who weren't in the Derby -- will face Smarty Jones, and of this I am confident: None of them will beat him, even though Rock Hard Ten and Eddington both have many supporters.
Rock Hard Ten is a talented colt -- talented enough for Gary Stevens to catch a flight in from France to ride him -- but he has raced only three times in his career and hasn't run since the Santa Anita Derby six weeks ago. He can't overcome his lack of experience and seasoning.
Eddington's chances may be enhanced because Jerry Bailey is riding him, but the colt has never won a stakes race. He was third in the slow Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct, and the two horses who beat him went on the finish ninth and 12th in the Derby. Like Rock Hard Ten, he is a throw-out in the Preakness.
Smarty Jones's competition will come from the 2-3-5 finishers in the Derby -- Lion Heart, Imperialism and The Cliff's Edge. Even though Lion Heart finished second, it is hard to make a case that he can turn the tables on the winner. He got an uncontested lead at Churchill Downs on a track favoring speed, yet Smarty Jones ran him down and beat him decisively. The shorter distance of the Preakness won't make a difference. Smarty Jones proved that he is the better horse.
The Cliff's Edge could improve significantly over his Churchill Downs showing. He made an impressive last-to-first rally to win the Blue Grass Stakes in his final prep for the Derby. At Churchill Downs, his stretch-running style worked against him; he lost both front shoes during the course of the race, according to trainer Nick Zito; and he was a victim of the Beyer Kiss of Death, having been my pick to win. But in the last few days the colt has been suffering from foot problems that may keep him from getting to the starting gate, and ought to dampen the enthusiasm of handicappers inclined to play him in the Preakness.
Imperialism came into the Derby with good credentials -- he had rallied strongly to win two California stakes -- and he emerged from the race with his reputation enhanced. Although he finished third, six lengths behind Smarty Jones, he delivered an exceptional performance.
A habitual slow starter, Imperialism had moved into striking position on the backstretch when he ran into a wall of traffic. By the time jockey Kent Desormeaux found racing room, the colt was hopelessly out of contention. Nevertheless, he regained his momentum and rallied powerfully in the last eighth of a mile, outkicking strong finishers such as The Cliff's Edge.
On a different racing surface, in a field with less traffic, Imperialism is capable of beating the Derby winner; at 5 to 1 or thereabouts, he certainly offers the best betting value in the race. I'll bet him, but I'll also play an exacta box of Imperialism and Smarty Jones. The favorite is going to be formidable, and even a contrarian should hesitate to take a bold stand against him.