The Week in Review: Is the 'Fresh Horse' Angle Getting Stale?

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For the second year in a row, the GI Preakness S. was won by a fresh horse who didn't run in the GI Kentucky Derby. Since both of Saturday's top two Preakness finishers–Early Voting (Gun Runner) and Epicenter (Not This Time)–were publicly declared out of the GI Belmont S. even before the last of the crab cakes cooled at Pimlico, it will be up to another relatively rested horse to step up and snag the third jewel of the Triple Crown.

That's not an unfamiliar scenario, and recent history tells us the most likely Belmont win threat could be among the Derby also-rans.
Since 2000, New York's “test of a champion” has been won by 10 horses who ran in Louisville then opted out of Baltimore. During that same time frame, seven horses won the Belmont after not having run in either the Derby or Preakness. We also had two Triple Crown winners (Justify in 2018 and American Pharoah in 2015), and two other horses–Afleet Alex in 2005 and Point Given in 2001–who lost the Derby, won the Preakness, then won the Belmont (the pandemic-altered 2020 Triple Crown scheduling was an anomaly that isn't counted here).

The connections of Rich Strike (Keen Ice) voluntarily held out their Derby winner from the Preakness, citing the desire to have a fresh colt for the Belmont. Yet the 80-1 hero from the first Saturday in May is unlikely to be favored on June 11.

Rich Strike's underdog appeal will undoubtedly attract supporters and a sizable rooting interest. But going from being a blue-collar, no-pressure afterthought who lucked into the Derby off the also-eligible list to being the focal point of microscopic attention in the media capital of the world will be a daunting ask for this overachieving (and sometimes ornery) former $30,000 maiden claimer.

Trainer Todd Pletcher might not have pioneered the now-prevalent “skip the Preakness” methodology. But he's certainly done his part to lend credibility to the “less is more” approach when targeting the Triple Crown's concluding leg.

The Pletcher-conditioned Tapwrit was sixth in the 2018 Derby, passed on the Preakness, then won the Belmont. Similar story for Palace Malice in 2013, except that he was 12th at Churchill. Pletcher's other Belmont winner, the filly Rags to Riches, had the same five-week spacing in 2007, except her circumstances were different, having won the GI Kentucky Oaks prior to taking on males in New York.

Using those templates as a guide, Pletcher is aiming two contenders (at least) toward the Belmont: Mo Donegal (Uncle Mo), who got buried with the dreaded rail draw in the Derby, waited too long to uncork a far-turn bid, then displayed sneaky-good acceleration inside the eighth pole to finish fifth, and Nest (Curlin), the filly who won three straight stakes this past winter and spring prior to being the beaten fave (second) in a very competitive renewal of the May 6 Kentucky Oaks.

Barber Road (Race Day), a gritty stayer who was sixth in the Derby, is the only other confirmed Belmont probable among those who ran in the first leg of the Triple Crown. Creative Minster (Creative Cause), a minor-impact third in the Preakness, is also being pointed to the Belmont.

Although that list of Belmont contenders looks light at the moment, it's sure to be shored up over the next 2 1/2 weeks.
Chief among names percolating around the periphery are We the People (Constitution), winner of the May 14 GIII Peter Pan S. with a 103 Beyer Speed Figure.

Two other colts who had formerly been under Derby consideration but instead won confidence-boosters on Saturday could also be in the mix: Ethereal Road (Quality Road), who scored in the Sir Barton S. on the Preakness undercard, plus Howling Time (Not This Time), who captured an allowance/optional claimer at Churchill.

Parsing the outcome of the Preakness need not be a drawn-out affair. Armagnac (Quality Road), an 18-1 outsider, went to the lead. The jockeys aboard two other on-paper speed threats–Fenwick (Curlin) and Simplification (Not This Time)–chose not to force the issue through moderate early fractions. Jose Ortiz, knowing what he had underneath him, willingly conceded the lead with Early Voting and instead sat second, applying quiet but palpable pressure through consecutive quarters in :24.32, :23.12, :24.06 and :24.05 for the first mile of the race.

Meanwhile, at the back of the pack, it was evident by the midway point that the two favorites, Epicenter and the filly Secret Oath (Arrogate), had left themselves too much work to do. While both had endured jostling early in the race, it shouldn't have adversely affected either considering both were in the process of being rated off the pace when the bumping occurred.

Joel Rosario was first to move with a sense of urgency, sending Epicenter up the rail to tag onto the back of the first flight about a half-mile from home. Luis Saez soon mimicked the favorite's “let's hustle” move, expect he stayed widest with Secret Oath. The end result for both was more or less the same: Epicenter had to ride out the run through the far bend while pocketed with nowhere to go, then he had no true spark once he cut the corner and had a clear shot. Secret Oath once again launched into the same loop-the-group maneuver that had come up short in the GI Arkansas Derby, and she similarly petered out in the stretch.

With the favorites foundering behind him, Early Voting simply ratcheted up the torque on Armagnac, going head-and-head for the lead between the seven-sixteenths and quarter poles before cracking that rival for good. He responded to urging like a colt who knows his job, drifted only slightly under left-handed encouragement, then shifted back inward to finish up 1 1/4 comfortable lengths clear of a wheels-spinning Epicenter through a final three-sixteenths in :18.99 and a 1:54.54 clocking for the 1 3/16-mile Preakness (105 Beyer).

The only real surprise was that Early Voting had drifted up to 5.7-1 in the betting. Otherwise, the race unfolded in drama-free fashion. If you didn't know it was the Preakness, it could have been any other race at any level on any given day of the week–an overmatched speed horse gets reeled in by a stalker who gets first run, and no one else is firing through the lane.

In sum, Early Voting's measured, methodical victory was a microcosm of how the 4-for-4 colt got to the Preakness in the first place. His connections–trainer Chad Brown and owner Klaravich Stables–had taken the calculated, patient path in prep races and bypassing the Derby, and it paid off at Pimlico, just as it did five years ago when the same owner/trainer combo won the Preakness with Cloud Computing.

Racing isn't the only sport in which the metrics-driven “waiting game” has cycled into vogue. We see it in major-league baseball, where pitchers are removed from starts solely based on pitch counts, even if a no-hitter or World Series game is on the line. High-value college football recruits now routinely skip important, season-ending bowl games so as not to sully their draft status. And pro basketball teams routinely sit their stars during the regular season with the hope of having fresh bodies for the playoffs, where wins count most.

It's tough to dismiss the current over-reliance on analytics when these formulaic approaches keep producing results. And in racing, you certainly can't argue when owners and trainers opt out of potentially arduous spots citing a desire to “do what's best for the horse.”

But there is a difficult-to-define aesthetic cost to mapping out Triple Crown campaigns so conservatively and meticulously. Having already arrived at the point where getting into the Derby has devolved into a chase for qualifying points, the final two legs of the series are at risk of becoming an exercise of which connections have played the “fresh face” percentages most effectively.

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