Analysis : Mortgage the House: Badger Land a Lock in Preakness

Washington Post

Mortgage the house. Hock the family jewels. Crack open the kids' piggy bank. Badger Land is a mortal lock to win the Preakness.

Yes, I know I said precisely the same thing before the Kentucky Derby. And if this were a perfectly just universe, Badger Land's name would be inscribed forever on the walls of Churchill Downs. But because he was the unluckiest horse in the roughest Derby of the last decade, he must wait until Saturday to prove how superior he is to this whole group of 3 year olds.

It is true that just about everybody involved in the Derby could claim some kind of excuse. Badger Land was bumped at the start. Snow Chief and Groovy were the victims of an extraordinarily fast pace. Rampage was stopped cold in the stretch. Ferdinand was squeezed back to last place in the early stages of the race, but because he managed to win after his difficulties, trainer Charles Whittingham is genuinely convinced he will sweep the Triple Crown series.

The films of the Derby permit as many varied interpretations as a Picasso painting. But what makes Pimlico so much more interesting than the Hirschorn Museum is that we can collect 2-to-1 odds if our interpretation is right. While many will surely think I am rationalizing and making excuses for losing the Derby, I am absolutely, unequivocally right about Badger Land.

When we watch any horse run, we have to judge his performance in the context of pace. A horse may make what looks like an impressive move, but it may be eye-catching only because the rest of the field is moving so slowly. This year's Kentucky Derby, especially, must be viewed in this light, because the first three-quarters of a mile were run extraordinarily fast (1:10 1/5) and the last half mile was run very slow (51 3/5 seconds).

The early fractions of this Derby were almost identical to those of 1981. In that race, all the leaders collapsed and the horses who were running 15-19-10-17-20 after three-quarters of a mile finished 1-2-3-4-5. This year, similarly, all the top finishers were horses who made late moves after the front-runners had faded.

Broad Brush got a perfect ride from Vincent Bracciale Jr., who conserved the colt's speed, sat eight lengths behind the leaders, moved when they fell apart and held on to finish third. But it was Ferdinand who had the best trip of all. The trouble he encountered early in the race was a blessing in disguise. Shuffled back to last place, jockey Bill Shoemaker stayed far behind the fast pace. He saved ground on the first turn and found racing room in the middle of the congested pack on the final turn. Everything went right for him at Churchill Downs.

And everything went wrong for Badger Land. Expected to sit in the middle of the pack (about where Broad Brush was), he was bumped hard at the start and was dead last after one-sixteenth of a mile. This did not have to be fatal; after all, Badger Land was then in approximately the same position as Ferdinand.

But unlike the cool Shoemaker, Jorge Velasquez hit the panic button. He angled Badger Land to the outside and rushed into contention. He passed seven horses to get into mid-pack, in reasonable striking position, on the backstretch. What he did may not have looked dazzling, but Badger Land was making up this gound during one of the fastest portions of any Kentucky Derby in history.

Even so, he had plenty of energy left. After settling into striking position on the backstretch, Badger Land made a second move, six-wide around the turn, to draw abreast of the leaders before he understandably faded in the final furlong.

The extra ground Badger Land had to cover on the turns probably equaled just about all of the 4 3/4 lengths by which Ferdinand beat him in Kentucky. And the fact that Badger Land finished so close after encountering totally adverse conditions -- while the horses who beat him had everything in their favor -- suggests to me that he completely outclasses the Preakness field. In a seven-horse field, on an unbiased Pimlico track, nothing should stop him from verifying his superiority.

For wagering purposes, I wish I could zero in on one cold exacta combination, but I can't muster enough confidence in any of the other horses in the field. Maybe I'll make some side bets that I can name Badger Land's margin of victory: four lengths. But the margin and the identity of the second-place finisher are the only things about the Preakness that are in doubt.

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