Baffert gives rail a pass, picks No. 8 spot for `War'

Others follow his lead

`Medaglia' 5-2 favorite

Horse Racing

May 16, 2002|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,SUN STAFF

Long before the race, the maneuvering for a tactical advantage in the 127th Preakness began in earnest.

It happened last evening at ESPN Zone during the post-position selection process in which winning Kentucky Derby trainer Bob Baffert set the tone after the luck of the draw gave him the first pick for War Emblem.

To the surprise of some rivals, but in a predictably sound move to others, Baffert shunned an inside post and placed his front-running colt in the No. 8 slot in the 13-horse field. Everyone else then scrambled to get even farther outside.

D. Wayne Lukas followed by inserting Table Limit, his late entry into the race, at the ninth post. John Ward, whose speedy Booklet is expected to insure a rather rapid pace, landed in No. 10.

So much for the traditional thinking about Pimlico Race Course's rail bias.

"I'm very surprised," Ken McPeek, trainer of Harlan's Holiday, said of Baffert's strategy. "I guess he was trying to get outside to get the horse to relax and make the speed go inside of him."

Instead, the speed went the opposite way. Booklet is a colt who knows only one way to run - at the head of the pack. Table Limit, a lightly raced horse, has sought the front end quickly in his last two wins.

And long shot Menacing Dennis (at No. 11) and Lukas' other entry, Derby runner-up Proud Citizen, like to get out there quickly, as well.

"We're not going to change our tactics," Baffert said. "This horse has shown us that you have to let him bounce away from there [the gate] and get him going. I went outside because I figured these guys might go inside, but these other guys didn't go for it."

"I was sitting with Joe De Francis [Maryland Jockey Club president and CEO] and I told him he would go for 8 or 9," said the cagey Lukas. "It was very predictable."

Ward is particularly adamant about not letting War Emblem get away to set his own tempo as he did in the Derby. He has Pat Day aboard Booklet to judge the rating in the early stages of the race and is determined to pressure Baffert's trainee.

"There is no secret," Ward said. "Booklet will be outside controlling the speed. He should be establishing a front-running type of position to the first turn. Pat Day is my go-to man on this."

Day's assignment is to read the speed and then act appropriately.

Ward pointed out that in the last 10 Preaknesses the winner was coming down the center of the track - not hugging the rail - during the stretch run. Therefore, being inside was not vital.

"And most people don't want inside because there is a single load," said Ward, referring to one horse at a time going into the starting gate. That leaves the colts at inside posts standing for a relatively long time before the start.

Lukas expects the Bobby Frankel-trained Medaglia d'Oro to "try to get into the race a little better" after being bumped in the Derby and running into traffic problems.

With Jerry Bailey aboard, track oddsmaker Frank Carulli made Medaglia d'Oro the 5-to-2 favorite, with War Emblem second at 3-to-1.

"He is the obvious horse coming out of the Derby with an excuse," Carulli said.

Also in a good spot is the beaten Derby favorite, Harlan's Holiday, the third choice at 9-to-2.

"It's hard to say how they're going to play this thing," said McPeek, who chose the No. 6 post. "It looks like all the speed is outside, but we are in good shape and Medaglia d'Oro may be even a little better."

The question Booklet presents is how far he can maintain his kick. The question about War Emblem is whether he can win from a post farther out than No. 6 and whether he will fold if pressured hard.

"I don't know if he'll be able to take the heat and keep on going," conceded Baffert. "I don't think anybody knows what's going to happen."

Whatever happens, Lukas anticipates the four graduates of the Kentucky Derby to be major factors in the race.

"It's been my experience that the battle-tested ones show up here with the best shot to win," he said.

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