Saturday might be mudder's day at Preakness

Pimlico not expected to be as sloppy as Derby, but rain would again give edge to Super Saver

May 14, 2010|By Frank D. Roylance and Kevin Van Valkenburg, The Baltimore Sun

You're going to have to forgive Super Saver's owners, his trainer and his jockey if they happen to do a successful rain dance tonight in preparation for the 135th running of the Preakness.

Because while bad weather might ruin your Pimlico plans, it's unlikely to ruin Super Saver's. We don't know a lot about the Kentucky Derby winner just yet, but we do know this: He loves running in the mud. And not many horses do.

It's unclear, though, whether the forecast will play into his hands the way it did two weeks ago in Louisville, Ky., when 1.3 inches of rain fell on race day and played a big factor in his 21/2-length victory. Weather forecasters say Baltimore can expect showers and thunderstorms today but not Saturday.

But much like handicapping, meteorology is an inexact science, so track maintenance officials say they're ready to groom and "seal" the surface against whatever the skies unload on the dirt course.

"You may have a half-inch on top that's a little soupy, but [underneath] it's all firm and somewhat packed," said Robbie Mitten, director of racing surfaces. "Otherwise, if it's soupy all the way down, the whole track would run into the ditch."

No one expects that. At least not yet.

"Saturday, as of now, looks dry," meteorologist Jared Klein said Thursday at the National Weather Service's Baltimore-Washington forecast office in Sterling, Va.

Between now and then, however, Baltimore can expect some showers and thunderstorms as a cold front slides across the region. And that should play into the hands of horses who don't mind a sloppy surface, or mudders, as they're affectionately called.

So what makes a good mudder?

"Their pedigree, the size of their foot and the efficiency of motion," said trainer D.Wayne Lukas, who has won 13 Triple Crown races in his career. "They get over the ground; they don't run into it. And the ones who get over the ground instead of running into it don't get much mud in their face. They end up going wire-to-wire."

The ones who don't, or the ones who get caught in traffic, can barely see where they're going. That happened to Lukas' horse, Dublin, at the Derby.

"My horse wears blinkers, and when we took them off, the mud fell out of them like a softball," Lukas said. "He was totally blind. I don't think he saw anything for the last half-mile."

Klein said it's not likely to be close to the soaking at Churchill Downs.

"I don't think we're looking at that," he said.

Soggy tracks for the Preakness have been rare. The Maryland Jockey Club has recorded sloppy conditions for the big race only twice since 1959 — once, in 1972, when Bee Bee Bee won in a drizzle, and again in 1983, when Deputed Testamony won in rain.

With millions of dollars at stake on race day, eyeing the clouds in the sky can turn into a pretty serious deal. Pimlico has its own weather station, Mitten said. It reports temperature and rainfall totals and intensity. There are buried sensors to measure moisture beneath the turf track and portable sensors for use elsewhere. And there is experience.

"You can look at it and see if it's soupy or just muddy and sticky. Then you can look at the weather forecast and make a determination what you need to do that day," he said.

If there's rain in the forecast, the crews will roll the dirt and drag a 3/4-inch steel "float" behind a tractor to smooth, pack and "seal" the surface. The mix of sand, silt and clay can keep subsequent rain from soaking in.

It might look muddy to spectators, Mitten said, but beneath the soggy top half-inch, the dirt is just moist and "semi-packed," giving the horses good footing.

"If they prep it, and float it, and seal it, it doesn't change consistency, whether [the rain] is 1 inch or 3 inches," he said. Excess water should run off toward the inside rail, where perimeter drains take it away.

On Derby Day two weeks ago, the weather service recorded 1.32 inches of rain in Louisville. It rained hard in the morning, canceling morning workouts and forcing some races off the turf track, and turned the dirt track into a thick slop. The showers continued through the afternoon.

None of it seemed to matter to Super Saver, a development a lot of people wagering on the race predicted would happen. That's because Super Saver's maiden victory as a 2-year-old came on a rainy day at Belmont Park, where he won by more than five lengths.

Frank Carulli, racing analyst and official handicapper at Pimlico, said bettors usually try to factor a horse's past performance on muddy or sloppy tracks — "off tracks" in racing parlance — into their wagering strategy. But he rarely considers it when he calculates the track odds for the day's racing forms.

"To be honest with you, I hardly weigh it in at all," he said.

First, there's the timing problem. It's hard to get a precise read on rain amounts three days in advance, when he does his handicapping.

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