The Brock Talk

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Preakness Love

It is without doubt the least glamorous of the Triple Crown races. The Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) of course is the among America’s most classic sports events – the Run for the Roses – the most exciting two minutes in sports. The Belmont is the Test of Champions. All others things being equal, that moniker stands prominently, perhaps even more so than the Derby glamour, when championship ballots are cast at the end of the year. But the Preakness? Even its 1-13/16 miles distance is a bit non-conformist. The Preakness is... well... the Preakness is the second leg of the Triple Crown. And often misunderstood as not much more.

Yes the city of Baltimore and the state of Maryland have plenty to offer Preakness fans. There is of course, the world class crab cakes and other blue crab delicacies, Fort McHenry, the chicken box, Orioles baseball, berger cookies and National Bohemian beer. But one has to leave all that and go to Pimlico Race Course for the Preakness. I’ve never been to Pimlico, but the reviews are not good. Nor have they been in quite some time. But the Preakness is bigger than it’s home and this is not about Pimlico or Magna Entertainment.

Quite the contrary in fact. Because this is what I love about the Preakness. Come on. It’s the middle child. Even though it is older than the Kentucky Derby by two years, let’s give the Preakness a little extra love.

I love the fact that the Preakness usually takes the great Kentucky Derby story and improves or solidifies them. The Preakness is the only race in the world after the Kentucky Derby that provides hopes for a Triple Crown winner. From Sir Barton in 1919 to Affirmed in ’78 and all nine Triple Crown winners in between, they all had to win the Preakness.

The Preakness can also be the first step in the healing process after suffering an upset loss in the Derby. It is kind of horse racing’s home to vindication. Bimelech at 2-5 odds, lost the 1940 Kentucky Derby to 35-1 long shot Gallahadian then cam back to win the Preakness and Belmont. Capot in 1949, Native Dancer (’53), Nashua (’55), Little Current (’74), Damascus (’77), Risen Star (’88), Tabasco Cat (’94) and Point Given in 2001 suffered the same paths of frustration to just short of history.

The Preakness can also be a part of an equally frustrating path for those who won the Derby and Preakness, but failed to take the Belmont Stakes. There have been twenty-one who have traveled that road with Burgoo King the first in 1932 and Big Brown the most recent in 2008. In those years, as well as in the eleven that produced Triple Crown winners, it is the Belmont Stakes that gets all the eventual attention. But it is the Preakness that makes the heads begin to turn. Somehow it seems, the middle jewel just doesn’t get the deserved credit again.

Also in the Preakness, rivalries sometimes get closer and the intensity rises. Affirmed defeated Alydar by a 1-1/2 lengths at Churchill Downs, but only by a neck two weeks later in the Preakness. Sunday Silence defeated Easy Goer by 2-1/2 in the Derby but only by a nose in the Preakness after a legendary stretch-long battle. (photo above left)

One of the best Preakness battles gets lost in history as the Derby tension between jockey Gary Stevens and Pat Day spilled over to the Preakness of 1988. Stevens had won the Derby, going wire-to-wire with the filly Winning Colors. But jockey Pat Day, who rode Derby second-place finisher Forty Niner, vowed that the filly would not get such an easy trip in the Preakness. Day succeeded in his plan as he raced Forty Niner to the lead in the Preakness and got inside position on Winning Colors and Stevens. Day carried Stevens wide in the first turn, wide down the backstretch and wide around the first turn. That’s when Day’s plan was exposed by jockey Eddie Delahoussaye on Risen Star, who turn the inside path and raced by the two leaders who had bumped each other more than once before then. Risen Star drew clear and won the Preakness ahead of a closing Brian’s Time in second. Winning Colors was third and Forty Niner and Pat Day were out of the money.

Then there is the 1981 Preakness when Angel Cordero aboard Codex, carried Derby winning filly Genuine Risk wide coming out of the final turn. Codex would cross the finish line first, but Genuine Risk jockey Jacinto Vasquez called foul. ABC Sports analyst and Hall of Fame jockey Eddie Arcaro told the national TV audience he felt Codex should be disqualified and placed second after the ABC replay of the race seemed to confirm that Cordero had even struck Genuine Risk with his whip.

But the track stewards upheld the order of finish and a national reaction ensued as the Pimilco switch board immediately flooded with calls and truck loads of mail from upset fans followed.

Because the Preakness only allows a maximum of 14 starters and many times feature eight to ten runners, the race is run more true to form – not to mention safer on equine and human alike. In fact, it has been six years since the Preakness featured a full gate of 14 starters. Because of that, there are fewer collisions, bumps and checks in the Preakness. It’s unlike the first 600 yards in the Derby where a wave of horse and human battle for the rail and good position going into the first turn. Field size alone allows a horse a greater chance to run to their potential in the Preakness.

The pace is more honest in the Preakness. Because the Kentucky Derby has such a large field, there are often an unusually large number of speed horses. With so many runners fighting for their comfort zone on the lead, the Derby pace is often out of control fast. Shackleford’s slow pace this year in the Derby was an anomaly of the greatest sorts.

Don’t forget about the Preakness trophy either. Valued at $1 million the 140-year-old Woodlawn Vase (photo above right) was made by Tiffany and Company and is the most valuable trophy in American Sports. Painting the colors on the winning owner on the weather vane immediately after the race is also a wonderful tradition.

Yes the Preakness does not have the glamour, prestige or championship credentials of the Kentucky Derby or the Belmont. Yes the Preakness does not come from the best home and it is even shorter than the other two. Forget the fact that the Preakness fouled up an apparent track record for Secretariat. It deserves more recognition than it sometimes gets. The winning owners, trainers and jockeys are elated to win the Preakness each year and probably appreciate the significance than most sports fans. But like other events, athletes and teams that go on over shadowed, there’s still plenty to love about the little race.

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