BALTIMORE -- It's often said and believed: A front-runner usually wins the Preakness. Not so.
In its past 15 runnings, only super filly Rachel Alexandra led all the way, in 2009, when she became Horse of the Year. Mike Smith nearly went wire to wire in the Kentucky Derby on runner-up Bodemeister, and he's expected to try it again Saturday. This time, instead of coming from off the pace, Derby hero I'll Have Another will try to put early pressure on Bodemeister.
At least that's trainer Doug O'Neill's announced strategy for young, cool Mario Gutierrez, who has worked out three consecutive perfect trips on I'll Have Another.
"The great thing about I'll Have Another is his first step out of the gate is very quick,'' O'Neill said. "If Bodemeister is going to get an easy lead, we'll just push him. Somewhere in midrace, hopefully we can take a little breather. Somewhere around the three-eighths pole, we'll have to go after him and hopefully have a good stretch duel and end up on the winning end again."
Sounds like a shrewd strategy, but as the eminent philosopher Mike Tyson once said, "Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth."
What if I'll Have Another breaks slowly and / or loses position because of traffic trouble entering the first turn? If that happens, does Gutierrez let Bodemeister run freely on his own and hope he can catch him? The 13/16-mile Preakness is a sixteenth of a mile shorter than the Derby, and I'll Have Another didn't pass Bodemeister there until inside the sixteenth pole. And what happens if Bodemeister breaks slowly and is taken out of his best game?
When asked about the pace scenario, Bodemeister's trainer, Bob Baffert, said: "It will probably be the two of us unless somebody else wants to join the fray. I figure the horses coming out of the Derby are the biggest threats. I don't know much about the new shooters.''
Went the Day Well (fourth), Creative Cause (fifth), Daddy Nose Best (10th) and Optimizer (11th) also ran in Louisville. Went the Day Well is improving for trainer Graham Motion, and he went from 14th to fourth, making up almost 10 lengths, in the final quarter-mile. If he and John Velazquez can avoid another bad start, they could be in position to pounce in midstretch if Bodemeister and I'll Have Another tire each other out. Creative Cause also is a strong finisher and the only horse in the race to have beaten the top two. Daddy Nose Best seems a cut below the top four. Optimizer (0-for-7 on dirt) doesn't belong.
Of the five who missed the Derby, Teeth of the Dog and Zetterholm have potential, although each needs a major leap forward. Pretension, Tiger Walk and Cozzetti look seriously overmatched.
Numbers are crucial in assessing thoroughbreds, but the sport isn't played on paper, and it's not an equation. Trends can be helpful, though, and of the last 11 Preakness winners, only Afleet Alex and Curlin were farther back than fifth after 6 furlongs. If Bodemeister and I'll Have Another play cat and mouse up front, maybe a horse in the second flight can steal the cheese.
Running back on only two weeks' rest isn't Motion's style, yet he didn't hesitate with Went the Day Well. "We made a quick decision to run here after the Derby,'' Motion said. "It wasn't a hard decision. We've noticed that when we work him or run him, this horse never seems to get tired.''
If Bodemeister and I'll Have Another do, maybe Went the Day Well will capitalize.