Thursday, May 19, 2011

Will Animal Kingdom Rule the Preakness?

You really don't have to be blessed with any special insights to predict that the winner of the Kentucky Derby will not win the second jewel in horse racing's Triple Crown.

Since Affirmed won the Triple Crown in 1978, roughly one–third of the horses that won the Kentucky Derby went on to win the Preakness two weeks later. In the last six years, only Big Brown (in 2008) has accomplished it.

Last year's Derby winner, Super Saver, lost the Preakness, fading at the end when Lookin at Lucky seemed to come from nowhere to seize control.

Up to that point, Super Saver had been among the leaders, but, after Lookin at Lucky made his move, Super Saver was like a balloon that lost all of its air and deflated, finishing out of the money.

That's the thing that casual observers of horse racing don't really understand. A horse race isn't just a horse race. Distance matters. So does surface — and experience.

The surface will be the same as Animal Kingdom encountered two weeks ago, and the distance will be almost what it was — but the great intangible for him is the fact that his racing history is not extensive enough for anyone to know what to expect.

With a record that could be written on a cocktail napkin, Animal Kingdom is one big question mark — and that is the sort of thing that, back in the day, would have made all of my old railbird friends uneasy, to say the least.

Being the defending Kentucky Derby winner, the odds on Animal Kingdom won't reflect the absence of experience going into the Preakness on Saturday — the way they did two weeks ago — but they should.

Today, with the Preakness only days away, observers are wondering if Animal Kingdom, a 20–1 shot when he won the Derby, can keep alive for a while longer the dream that a horse will win the Triple Crown this year.

That is the question. It's as clear as it can be. Can he do it?

The answer is not as clear. Not yet.

Yes, says a National Thoroughbred Racing Association poll. (I could be wrong, but I get the sense that the respondents are towing the company line, trying to build some enthusiasm momentum for the possibility of a Triple Crown.)

It's possible, writes Andrew Beyer of the Washington Post. " It would be natural to suspect that Animal Kingdom's victory might be another Kentucky Derby aberration," he says, "[y]et an examination of the race indicates that his performance was legitimate."

No, writes Ray Kerrison of the New York Post. He spoke to a horse racing expert who told him that, for at least two reasons, he can't see Animal Kingdom winning the Preakness.

We will get some answers on Saturday.

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