As Ed Comerford, Newsday's late, great racing writer, used to say, "They don't hand out medals for picking the favorite, even if it wins.'' Many horseplayers are allergic to favorites, especially in high-profile races, always challenging the horse that looks like the most logical winner.
They search relentlessly for animals they think are ready to give a breakthrough performance at juicy odds. Unfortunately, these "wise guy" horses rarely win. Every Kentucky Derby has one, and this year's impostor was Normandy Invasion, who had only one win but had closed powerfully for second in his previous race, the Wood Memorial.
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Like many "hope" bets, this 9-1 shot teased his supporters before they ripped up their tickets. For about three-sixteenths of a mile, Normandy Invasion looked like a conqueror, rallying to lead in upper stretch and staying in front until inside the eighth pole. Then 5-1 favorite Orb splashed past and Normandy Invasion faded to fourth.
In Saturday's 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes, price seekers will dismiss Oxbow's 15-1 upset in the Preakness as a fluke and reject Orb's 3-1 odds (maybe less) as he tries to rebound from his fourth-place flop at 3-5 odds. So whom will the sharpies embrace? A likely candidate is Freedom Child, whose 13 1/4-length romp on a sloppy track in Belmont Park's Peter Pan Stakes jumps off the page. Like Orb, Freedom Child is a son of Malibu Moon, and if the track is wet, the upstart will draw even more money.
Seven Belmont prospects worked out Sunday, including Orb, Revolutionary, Palace Malice, Overanalyze and Unlimited Budget. After watching Freedom Child gallop that morning, Mike Welsch, the Daily Racing Form's sharp-eyed clocker, wrote "he made the best impression of all the Belmont hopefuls. He continues to give the impression he is coming into the Belmont at the top of his game.''
After accepting the Peter Pan trophy May 11, Terry Finley, the founder and president of West Point Thoroughbreds, said, ''I'll be doing a rain dance for the Belmont.'' Considering the forecast, he might not have to. The Weather Channel predicts a 60-percent chance of rain for Saturday.
Not to jinx him, but Freedom Child's profile is tempting. Not only does he have tactical speed and an excellent distance pedigree, but he's also lightly raced (2-for-6 lifetime) with plenty of upside. Like the last seven Belmont winners, he skipped the Preakness. He'll have a 28-day break, and unlike 10 of his potential rivals, he sat out the Derby. So did four of the past six Belmont champs: Rags to Riches, Da' Tara, Drosselmeyer and Ruler On Ice.
"Does he need the lead?" Finley said. "No. You'd like to think he'd be first, second or third down the backside. But if he was on the lead and got comfortable very quickly, I think we'd be smiling.''
Hmm, we see a nice pattern developing. Could Freedom Child be a legitimate contender at roughly 8-1 odds for hot young jockey Luis Saez?
"He's ready,'' trainer Tom Albertrani said. "He looks good and we want to keep him that way.''
Freedom Child is very easy on the eyes. "He's a big, stout colt, a bright chestnut with a big white blaze and three white socks,'' said Finley, who could have been describing the immortal Secretariat, who swept the 1973 Triple Crown. "We use heart analysis, and he has a really huge heart." Whoa, so did Big Red, who dominated the Belmont by an otherworldly 31 lengths.
"We think he's got the capacity to get a mile and a half from a heart standpoint. Now whether he has what's inside and the heart to do that, we'll find out at the quarter pole.''
I don't know about you, but I may have convinced myself to invest in this guy. I might even get into wise guy mode and pick him to win. Sometimes you have no idea what you're thinking until you start typing.