MINE THAT BIRD – Jockey Mike Smith dropped in on Mine That Bird at the Preakness Stakes Barn Friday morning,thrilled to be tabbed by the Kentucky Derby winner’s connections to replace Calvin Borel for Saturday’s 134th running of the Preakness Stakes.
When Borel, who masterminded a rail-hugging, last-to-first victory aboard Mine That Bird at Churchill Downs nearly two weeks ago, opted to ride Rachel Alexandra in the Preakness, Smith won the assignment to ride the Derby winner.
“It’s pretty cool. Everyone is asking if there’s extra-added pressure. Honestly, to me, I’m just excited to get this opportunity,” said the New Mexico native, who has known the gelding’s co-owner Dr. Leonard Blach for many years. “Hopefully, we can go out there and make the most of it and show people that it wasn’t a fluke.”
Smith will climb aboard the son of Birdstone for the very first time in the infield saddling area Saturday just prior to the Preakness post parade.
“I think he’s an extremely easy horse to ride. He’s so laid-back. I’ve watched about every race he’s run. He’s really rider friendly, it looks like. He doesn’t have any quirks,” the Hall of Fame rider said. “He seems to love the rail. He seems to love the middle of the track. I saw him swing six, seven wide one time in Canada and win. It doesn’t seem to matter where he’s at. Getting him to relax is the key.”
Trainer Chip Woolley said he had no concerns that Smith hadn’t gotten the opportunity for a get-acquainted gallop on Mine That Bird.
“He’s a great rider. He’s got great instincts. He’ll be all right. We know what we’re going to do,” the New Mexico-based trainer said. “Our plan will be to lay back and come from off the pace. Mike’s great at it. He’s patient. It’ll work out fine.”
Neither Smith nor Woolley expects Mine That Bird to be given the opportunity to duplicate his Derby dream trip in the 1-3/16-mile Middle Jewel of the Triple Crown.
“There’s nothing like Churchill and the Derby: you’re going a mile-and-a-quarter; it’s grueling; it’s hard on them there; so horses are done a little earlier there,” Smith said. “(Speed) will carry a little farther here. They don’t get done nearly as quick as they do in the Derby. It’s going to be a little different here.
“Our strategy is going to be similar. I mean, we’re not going to be 20 out of it behind the last horse. But it’s going to be: take him back and, hopefully, get him into that rhythm and see if he’ll punch like that again.”
“At Churchill we were the winner at the eighth-pole, so (the slight cutback in distance) doesn’t concern me. What concerns me more is the kind of trip I get around there. I need a good clean trip,” he said. “Chances of getting the rail trip like we got at Churchill are a little slimmer here.”
Smith has had success with deep closers in the Triple Crown, having ridden Giacomo for a fast-closing triumph in the 2005 Derby and guiding Prairie Bayou to a 1993 Preakness win from far off the pace. But he knows the task of coordinating a good trip from far back aboard Mine That Bird likely won’t be easy.
“I have the same concerns that I have on any horse that I’m going to ride that’s coming from back,” he said “You’re hoping that you get back and don’t get knocked around. You hope when the time comes and you do pull the trigger that there’s somewhere to go. You just gotta hope for a good trip.”
Smith said he was amazed by Mine That Bird’s performance in the Derby.
“It was just an incredible move. People want to say that it was a fluke, but he didn’t just get up and win,” he said. “If you watch the blimp (overhead) shot, he was running by horses in one jump. I’m hoping to get that run out of him again.”
Mine That Bird demonstrated great energy while finishing his morning gallop under exercise rider Charlie Figueroa Friday morning.
“We let him stretch out a little bit down through there. He looked pretty good. It looks like he gets over the racetrack good.” Woolley said. “He got over the track good, looked good and we were really happy with the way he went. He came back and couldn’t blow out a match.”
RACHEL ALEXANDRA – Jockey Calvin Borel made it clear Friday that he is very confident that filly Rachel Alexandra belongs in the Preakness, for which she is the 8-5 morning-line favorite.
“Right now, I’m glad,” he said. “She’s got a lot to prove and I’ve got a lot to prove for the people and show the public why I think she’s the best horse in the country right now. And this is the time to do it.”
Borel won the Kentucky Derby on Mine That Bird, but decided to take the unprecedented step of giving up that mount in the Preakness to stay with the filly, whom he has ridden to five consecutive victories. That decision came about when Stonestreet Stables and Harold T. McCormick purchased the filly a week ago and pointed her to the Middle Jewel of the Triple Crown.
While Borel complimented Mine That Bird and said he expects the gelding to turn in a good performance, the veteran jockey believes he will ride the winner.
“I think he’ll run a good race,” Borel said. “I don’t think he can run with my filly, but he’ll run a good race.”
During the telephone interview, Borel expanded on his view of how Mine That Bird and the rest of the field stack up against Rachel Alexandra, who won the Kentucky Oaks by 20 ¼ lengths on May 1.
“He’d have to run the race of his life to beat my filly,” Borel said. “I think all the other (12) are going to have to run the race of their lives or me fall off or something stupid happen.”
During his career, Borel has become well known for his fearless rides up the rail, a strategy that worked perfectly in his Derby-winning rides on Street Sense in 2007 and Mine That Bird two weeks ago. He laughed when asked how he would handle starting from the outside post, No. 13, in the Preakness.
“I’m not worried about that,” he said. “If she’s as good as I think she is, we’ll overcome that. We’re not worried about that. That’s the least of my worries. I think I’ve just got to point her in the right direction and she’ll get me there.”
Rachel Alexander was sent out to gallop under exercise rider Dominic Terry early Friday morning.
“She was relaxed and seemed happy to be out there and went great,” said Scott Blasi, assistant to trainer Steve Asmussen.
Blasi said he is pleased with the way the filly is coming into the race.
”She’s loose and she’s happy,” Blasi said. “I feel comfortable with how she’s doing. Her weight looks good.”
BIG DRAMA – Trainer David Fawkes sent Big Drama to the track Friday morning for exercise that included a mile jog and a mile gallop. The South Florida-based trainer, who will have a division of horses at Monmouth Park this year, may not be thrilled with the No. 1 post that was drawn for Big Drama, but he’s not going to lose any sleep over it, either.
“It doesn’t necessarily bother me. You have to see. The break is everything. After the break we’ll see,” he said. “It’s not like he’s just got moderate speed, where you break and get covered up – and you’re dead. He has enough natural ability to be where he needs to be. If he needs to be close, he’ll be close. If he needs to tuck in behind, he’ll tuck in behind. Where he needs to be, he’ll be.”
Fawkes has decided to take the blinkers off Big Drama, hoping the move will help his speedball relax. After coming up just short in his debut, Big Drama has finished first in his last six races, including a track-record shattering victory in the seven-furlong Swale Stakes at Gulfstream Park, from which he was disqualified for bumping second-place finisher This One’s for Phil.
“It’s like watching your kids grow. It’s really neat,” Fawkes said. “In our situation, they’re our family. I mean, we have a daughter, but you live this every day. You go to bed at night, it’s horses. You get up in the morning, it’s horses.”
John Velazquez will be aboard Big Drama for the first time Saturday.
FLYING PRIVATE/LUV GOV – Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who holds the record for Preakness starters with 32, paused for a second Friday morning before describing the mood on the eve of this year’s race.
“Uncertain. That’s the best choice of words,” he said. “People are having trouble getting a handle on it this year more than any other year. If the filly wasn’t in here, it would be totally upside down, because we’re still trying to validate the Derby winner . The filly gives us some stability because she is such a talent. There is a gray area, her first time facing boys, but the uncertainty and the confusion of trying to get a handle on it is pretty tough.”
Lukas said he couldn’t settle on who the top seven contenders were in the Kentucky Derby and is having the same trouble with the Preakness.
Lukas’ colts galloped over the track Friday morning. Alan Garcia will ride Flying Private and Jamie Theriot has the mount on Luv Gov for breeder-owner Marylou Whitney.
FRIESAN FIRE – Trainer Larry Jones was aboard his Kentucky Derby beaten favorite Friday morning for a five-furlong jog and five-furlong gallop at Pimlico. Jones, who will retire from training his public stable at the end of the year, admitted that he’s already feeling a little nostalgic.
“Every time we do something we realize that it could very well be the last time it’s done. We’re trying to enjoy everything as we go through it,” said Jones before turning to humor to describe his mood. “Some of it we’re going through, thinking, ‘Thank God, we don’t have to do this again.’”
Jones, though, will hardly withdraw from the thoroughbred world.
”We’re still going to be involved. My wife (Cindy) still has a horse or two, and we still have a few horses in partnership with other people. Those people, we’re going to be connected with, not training them the way I am right now. I’m hoping I’m their exercise boy, and I’ll find someone to train them,” he said. “I’ll still get to work around the barn in some capacity. But we have stallion seasons. We’ll be focusing more on our own private stable.”
Jones is looking forward to the change of pace.
“I would like to sleep late a morning or two, but the biggest thing I want to make happen is: when one of the grandkids has a birthday, I want to be there to watch them open their birthday presents,” he said. “And come Christmas morning, we’re going to try to get them all together where we can watch them open their Christmas presents – something that we haven’t got to do that everyone takes for granted.”
Friesan Fire, who faded to 18th in the Derby after getting bumped at the start and encountering heavy traffic, will be ridden by Gabriel Saez.
GENERAL QUARTERS – If the son of Sky Mesa happens to win the 134th Preakness, 75-year-old trainer/owner/groom/hot walker Tom McCarthy may have to give an assist to Hall of Fame colleague D. Wayne Lukas. The Blue Grass winner galloped about 1 ½ miles Friday at Pimlico, again with an exercise rider (Taylor Carty) borrowed from Lukas, and all seems in good order the day before the Middle Jewel of the Triple Crown.
“He really likes this track,” said McCarthy, who has taken his one-horse stable from Florida to Kentucky to Maryland in search of his first Triple Crown race win. “He’s doing great; so far, so good.”
Julien Leparoux has the return mount on General Quarters, who finished 10th in the Derby.
MUSKET MAN – The hard-trying son of Yonaguska was given a soft day of exercise at his home base at Monmouth Park by trainer Derek Ryan in preparation for an early-morning van ride to Pimlico.
“He just did an easy mile today,” Ryan said Friday morning. “He’s doing good, no problems. We’ll be leaving around 2:30 in the morning and should be there by 5:30.”
The Preakness will be Musket Man’s eighth career start on six different race tracks. He brings in a solid record of five wins and a pair of thirds, including the show finish in the Kentucky Derby. Eibar Coa has the mount.
PAPA CLEM – Mel Stute stood at the rail Friday morning shortly after 7, watching his son’s colt blow out on the day before the Preakness, much like his own Snow Chief did just before winning the 1986 edition of the Middle Jewel of the Triple Crown.
“Snow Chief worked 33 1/5 (seconds) that Friday and the owner (Carl Grinstead with Ben Rochelle) was pretty upset with me,” said the 81-year-old Stute, who is hoping to see his son, Gary, match his feat of saddling a winner with his first Preakness starter. “They’d have hung me in effigy if he got beat. He (Grinstead) had made a statement to the press that I’d ruined the Preakness like I ruined the Derby with my fast workouts.”
Grinstead was wrong and Mel Stute was right, atoning for the defeat as the Kentucky Derby favorite two weeks earlier. It turned out to be the only Preakness starter Mel Stute would ever have. He recalled Friday that his confidence level took a hit after Snow Chief finished 11th in Louisville, but it was back two weeks later. The trainer bet $400 on his own horse and had a $50 exacta with friendly rival Charlie Whittingham’s Ferdinand, the colt who had beaten him in the Derby.
“I’ve still never won a race in Kentucky,” Stute said. “I’ve tried a lot of times, so I thought maybe Gary could get it done (with Papa Clem), but it didn’t happen. Maybe we can get lucky again here. It would be something.”
Snow Chief beat Ferdinand by four lengths in the Preakness, a day Mel Stute still calls “his greatest day in racing.” His eyes lit up as he recalled that memorable afternoon of May 17, 1986.
“Charlie had his horse right here,” he said pointing to the traditional stall 40 in the Pimlico Stakes Barn. “We went out together to the track. It was kind of a day in your life. Us younger guys really liked Charles. He handled himself so well. Charlie’s the one that got me to come here. His filly had gotten beaten at 1-9 in the Kentucky Oaks, and he told me that kind of stuff happens at Churchill Downs and we better come over to the Preakness. I think he just wanted somebody to drink with. We ended up beating him, so he said he’d never do that again. I’ve been living off Snow Chief a long time.’’
The elder Stute said he believes his son can make a little history of his own.
“I’ve got a lot of confidence in him (Papa Clem),” he said. “I really believe he should have been second the other day. I’m pretty close to him because I bought his grandmother for Clement Hirsch. I have a little connection to him (Papa Clem is owned by Bo Hirsch, Clement’s son).”
The elder Stute has been a fixture in western racing for six decades, training champions like Very Subtle and Brave Raj. They’ve even named the clubhouse bar at Hollywood Park for him. Gary, 52, had served as his chief assistant for more than 20 years before going on his own. This is his first Triple Crown runner.
Papa Clem looked much sharper Friday than he did earlier this week (1:05 for five furlongs). The “work” began near the top of the stretch and was clocked unofficially by some observers from the eighth-pole home in 10-plus seconds.
“It was exactly what I wanted,” Gary said. “I don’t want him not having focus when they turn for home. I want him to know at that eighth-pole you need to be running all out. It was exactly like the Derby; two days before was exactly what I wanted. The works before (them) weren’t exactly what I wanted. If he gets beat tomorrow, it’s nobody’s fault but mine – or his.”
Rafael Bejarano will be back on Papa Clem, whom he rode to a fourth-place finish at Churchill Downs.
PIONEEROF THE NILE – When trainer Bob Baffert said Friday that he would prefer that Rachel Alexandra not be in the Preakness field, the reporter he was talking with seemed startled. Baffert quickly explained that his remark had nothing to do with a filly competing against males.
“Why? Because she’s so tough,” he said. “She’s really fast. If her style was coming from off the pace and she had to weave her way through, it would be more difficult for her. That’s not her style. She has tactical speed and she’s got a beautiful long, fluid stride. She’s a really good filly. But we have a really good horse, too. A lot of things can happen in these races.”
Baffert said that Derby runner-up Pioneerof the Nile looks good to him coming into the Preakness. The Empire Maker colt bred and owned by Ahmed Zayat galloped at Pimlico Friday morning.
“The Derby didn’t take anything out of him,” Baffert said. “The horse is getting better with age. He was a late foal and wasn’t 3 until after the Derby. I expect a big improvement throughout the year. I’m really hoping that we can get a good race into him. I hope he breaks cleanly. That’s the main thing. I’ll probably be sitting right behind them. I want a good spot. He likes competition. He likes to have a target to run at. Turning for home (in the Derby) the target disappeared and he was out there by himself. Mine That Bird went by him too fast to really engage with him. One good thing about having Rachel Alexandra in there is she is a great target. I just hope we can catch that target.”
Baffert said Mine That Bird really loved the wet sealed track in the Derby and benefitted from a great ground-saving trip by jockey Calvin Borel. The newly elected Hall of Fame trainer is hoping that Pioneerof the Nile can take another step forward in the Preakness.
“He’s a really good horse,” Baffert said. “I really thought I could win the (Derby) race. It didn’t happen. You’ve got to forget about it and move on to the next race. Maybe my theory is right. Maybe I’ll get a better chance. Now you’ve got the filly in there, a new factor. She’s very, very tough. She’s coming in there sort of semi-fresh because she didn’t have to run against any colts. She’s somebody that you have to reckon with, and the pace is going to be a big factor this year. We don’t know what the track is going to be like. I hope it doesn’t rain too much. I’d love to see the track we had today. It’s still going to be a very interesting race. There’s going to be a lot of questions that are going to be answered. That’s what the Preakness is about. Maybe my horse ran his race in the Derby, maybe he didn’t. I think everybody feels that way going in. This is like, I want revenge. Fortunately, our horse looks fantastic coming into the race. It looks like he’s going to run another big race. Rachel Alexandra and the other horses look great. It’s going to be a tough race.”
Garrett Gomez has the return mount on Derby runner-up Pioneer of the Nile.
TAKE THE POINTS – The Starlight Partners’ colt completed his preparations for the Preakness Friday with a 1 3/8-mile gallop at Belmont Park. The son of Even the Score is scheduled to be shipped from trainer Todd Pletcher’s barn to Baltimore at 2 a.m. Saturday. Wearing blinkers in a race for the first time, Take the Points could find himself attending the pace with the filly Rachel Alexandra, the 8-5 morning-line favorite. In 2007, Pletcher prepared the filly Rags to Riches for her victory over Curlin in the Belmont Stakes.
“At the end of the day, you have to decide when you get fillies of that quality, and they can only accomplish so much running within their gender,” Pletcher said. “Rags to Riches was a very specific situation because she was truly bred to run a mile and a half. Being a half to Jazil and by A.P. Indy, she was bred to do that. We analyzed it closely and there were a lot of reasons to running. At the time, she was doing very well and we didn’t feel like waiting around three more weeks to the Mother Goose - you never take for granted that they’re going to be doing as well as they are at the moment – so it felt like everything was coming together to take a shot.”
Hall of Fame jockey Edgar Prado will ride Take the Points in the Preakness.
TERRAIN – Al Stall Jr., a prominent trainer at Churchill Downs and Fair Grounds for several years, looks forward to saddling his first starter in a Triple Crown event in Saturday’s Preakness Stakes.
“I’m kind of glad it’s the Preakness. I’ve been around the Derby fanfare for 30-something years. I enjoy it, but this is much different. It’s exciting,” he said Friday
morning after sending Terrain to the track for a 1 ½-mile gallop and a schooling session at the starting gate. I’m kind of glad it’s here, because this place here is really focused on the Preakness horses. The Derby is just a three-week Mardi Gras type thing. I’m very comfortable, happy to be here.”
Terrain, a gelded son of Sky Mesa, will be making his third start of the year after finishing third in the Louisiana Derby and fourth in the Blue Grass Stakes.
“We’re happy with the horse. The draw fell into place. We just need one more thing to fall into place – the race,” he said. “The horse
Jeremy Rose, who rode Afleet Alex to victory in the 2005 Preakness, will be aboard Terrain for the first time.
TONE IT DOWN – Bill Komlo brought a van with four runners aboard to Pimlico Friday morning, but Tone It Down was not one of them. He will arrive Saturday morning from Laurel, where he simply walked the shedrow Friday morning.
“He had a lot of training the last two or three days, so we backed off on him today,” said Komlo, one of three septuagenarians training in this Preakness (Tom McCarthy and Wayne Lukas being the others). “The plan for tomorrow is to leave about 6 o’clock and we should be over there by quarter to seven.”
The son of Medaglia d’Oro will occupy a stall at the front end of the stakes barn traditionally occupied by Hall of Famer Nick Zito, who won the Preakness from there with Louis Quatorze in 1996.
Upon arriving at the track Friday, Komlo headed for the jockeys’ room for a meeting with the new rider of Tone It Down, Kent Desormeaux.
“We’re going to have a discussion about what we’re going to do tomorrow,” he said.