I WASN'T QUITE SURE what First Dude was doing in the Preakness until the colt outran the field in the first 100 yards and came flying by my Pimlico press box perch with a clear lead. I still wasn't sure what it was all about until First Dude ran Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver right out of the race, got passed by 2-year-old champion Lookin At Lucky and came right back at the eventual Preakness winner in the final 100 yards.
I try to listen to all the pre-race discussions because you never know when you are going to hear something you had not considered. Frankly, I had not heard much about First Dude.
It was only after the race that I heard how well he was training and that several people with good opinions actually liked him at 23-1.
On paper, I could not like First Dude on May 15. After all, the colt had won but a single race. He had been fifth in the Florida Derby and third in the Blue Grass Stakes. The colt had never run very fast. It looked to me like owner and trainer were reaching too high in the Preakness.
Turned out trainer Dale Romans knew exactly what he had. He nearly had the Preakness winner. And I think he has the Belmont Stakes winner.
Now, it is hard not to like First Dude on paper. Losing the Preakness by less than a length is pretty impressive stuff.
"Well, I've always liked First Dude," Romans said. "He's always trained like a top-shelf horse and he had a couple of problems in his two graded stakes earlier in the year at the Blue Grass and the Florida Derby. And I thought if he got a clean trip he was definitely going to be a force to be reckoned with. And he lived up to what we thought."
Well, there was not much early speed in the Preakness so somebody with a better imagination than mine could have put First Dude in front that day. It takes less imagination to put First Dude in front of tomorrow's Belmont Stakes field. And it doesn't take a big leap of faith to imagine him staying there.
This Belmont Stakes does not have the Derby and Preakness winners. It also does not have much early speed - except First Dude and late entrant Interactif. Obviously, Interactif's trainer, Todd Pletcher, had assessed the race and thought a colt with talent and speed might have a chance.
Even though this is the longest of the Triple Crown races, it is the one where speed is the most dangerous. The pace is often so slow and the chasers often so tired in the stretch that even less-than-mediocre speed horses (Da'Tara in 2008) can get to the front and keep going.
First Dude, a massive colt with a long, loping stride, is going to be in front or near the front.
If you are into names and politics, First Dude has some of both. The colt is out of the mare Run Sarah Run. Thus, the name came from what the former governor of Alaska called her husband, Todd Palin, when she was in office.
The tactical question is: Can any of the closers run First Dude down? Anybody who has scrutinized the Derby tape knows how unlucky Ice Box was to be second in that race. For several hundred yards in the stretch, Ice Box was blocked behind a wall of horses. When he finally got clear, he exploded in the final 75 yards.
Trainer Nick Zito resisted the temptation of the Preakness and retreated with the Florida Derby winner to the quiet of Saratoga where he got him ready for the Belmont. Ice Box benefited in Florida and Kentucky from hot paces in front of him. This time, the pace figures to be moderate so one wonders if Ice Box will have the same type of rally he had in those races. If he does, he is going to be very hard to resist.
Ice Box is just one of four graded stakes winners in the field. The others are Fly Down (Dwyer Stakes), Game On Dude (Lone Star Derby) and Stately Victor (Blue Grass). Make Music for Me (fourth in the Derby) has been in the top four in six graded stakes races, but has not won any of them. Three times, the colt finished just behind Lookin At Lucky.
Of that group, the most impressive colt is Fly Down, also trained by Zito. The son of Mineshaft was really good in winning the Dwyer by 6 lengths. A late bloomer, Fly Down is just now getting into the Triple Crown. And that might be a good thing. This is a very dangerous horse.
Proving again just how fragile the modern American horse has become, there is not a single horse in this race that ran in both the Derby and Preakness. In fact, First Dude is the only horse from the Preakness running in the Belmont. Only Ice Box, Make Music For Me and Stately Victor (eighth) are still around from the Derby.
Still, the powers that be in New York racing can't be too disappointed. It was just 2 weeks ago that they sent out notices to their employees that they would all be laid off after the Belmont, that New York racing was going to shut down.
The New York Racing Association was about to run out of money because the bankrupt New York City Off-Track Betting Corporation could not pay NYRA the $17 million it owed them. Then, the state, also way in the hole, stepped in to loan NYRA $25 million to stay in business.
Nearly a decade ago, the state authorized slot machines for Aqueduct, which would have put NYRA in much better financial shape. There are still no slots at the Big A, the result of the usual political nonsense over how it would be done and who gets to operate it. Most observers think slots will come to Aqueduct within the next year. Then, NYRA should be able to run its three racetracks without any threats from anyone of any kind.
Meanwhile, they will run the Belmont Stakes. And I like First Dude.
Romans sent out Paddy O'Prado to be third in the Derby and First Dude to be second in the Preakness. I detect a pattern. More important, I detect an improving horse with a huge tactical edge against a field devoid of stars. And, last I checked, wagering is allowed and encouraged. *