Jim Murray

Even Preakness Winners Have Their Moments

June 20, 1986|JIM MURRAY

The Preakness has been held up here as a satellite tournament of the race track. A basker in reflected glory. The Avis of horse racing. The Kentucky Derby's best friend. If it were human, it'd be Gabby Hayes.

To win the Preakness while mucking up the Kentucky Derby always seemed to stamp you as one who would settle for hand-me-downs, eat leftovers, fly tourist. Second-hand, second-class, second-banana. The Vice President.

No one knows for sure how the Kentucky Derby became The Star and the other two races in the Triple Crown, the Preakness and the Belmont, lesser lights who had to hitch their wagons to it.

The term, Triple Crown, itself derived from a similar series of races in 19th-Century England and did not come into common usage here until the 1940s.

The Preakness then became a sequel and seemed to have no importance in and of itself.

It was therefore a source of some dismay to California racing this year when a homebred horse seemed to misplay a winning hand badly in the Kentucky Derby and then turned around to win the Preakness handily against the same Kentucky Derby horse who had run by him.

Snow Chief is a tough little black horse, gutty, hardy, and resilient. If he were human, he'd be a tap dancer. He's got rhythm. He's also got heart. He has shipped this year to Northern California, Florida, Kentucky, New Jersey and Southern California. He has won everywhere but in Kentucky.

He may be the best race horse ever bred in California. He's no worse than second. If he's not the best, Swaps is.

Snow Chief threw in a dull race in the Kentucky Derby. Or maybe a foolish one. He was like a golfer who, going for a birdie on a water hole, has to settle for a triple bogey. He followed the fastest pace ever set in the Kentucky Derby, a suicidal 45-second dash to oblivion by a horse that was to finish last.

His owners, Carl Grinstead and Ben Rochelle, couldn't believe the race. His trainer, Mel Stute, wondered if somebody had switched horses on him in the paddock.

Kentucky just snickered. Another California imitation. Another Hollywood horse. Did he do tricks, too? they wanted to know. By the way, was he any relation to Silky Sullivan, Your Host, other California disasters at Churchill Downs? Was he just another sound stage horse? Shouldn't Shirley Temple ride him?

The next play called for putting him in a van and getting him back to the orange blossoms and the downhill tracks.

But Stute, disturbed, went out to the barns in the darkness hours the next morning. He was looking for an excuse to take his disappointment home with him. But Snow Chief, as they say around the race track, didn't have a pimple on him.

"I figured if I took him home and laid him up for two months, he would be a disgrace," recalls Stute.

On the other hand, to take him on to the Preakness risked compounding his humiliation. To lose the Kentucky Derby in a 20-horse rodeo was one thing. To repeat in the more civilized Preakness would be to get his hat pulled down over his ears, his bottom kicked, a tin can tied to his tail.

Snow Chief went out and won the Preakness as though Kentucky had happened to two other guys. He won with such ease it was shocking. He turned around a few days later and won the Jersey Derby against the same elite company.

Still, he had blown the country's most prestigious race. He had robbed an empty bank. He had danced the wrong dance, married the poor sister.

Or had he? A horse races for history. He also races for money. A horse gets that on the track--and the breeding barn.

The Preakness is not without its credentials in any man's stud book. It may, in point of fact, far out-weigh the Kentucky Derby.

The greatest race horse that ever lived won the Preakness and not the Derby. Man o' War.

The greatest race horse ever to lose a Kentucky Derby won the Preakness--Native Dancer.

What's more important was that they were two of the greatest sires of their eras.

But, what is really interesting is that the horse who was without doubt the greatest stud horse of his generation--or, in fact, any--was another horse who won the Preakness and not the Kentucky Derby or the Belmont.

Bold Ruler who won the 1957 Preakness after finishing fourth in the Derby--he later finished third in the Belmont--was the leading American sire for seven straight years, and 8 out of 11. No American stud horse comes close to those marks. Man o' War led only one year, Sir Galahad II four, and Bull Lea five, none of them consecutively.

Bold Ruler sired probably the second-greatest race horse of this century, Secretariat, and his genes coursed through most of the great Kentucky Derby winners of the past decade, including Seattle Slew, Spectacular Bid, Bold Forbes, Cannonade, Foolish Pleasure and others.

The moral of the story is, don't throw the Preakness out, after all. It may not be that overshadowed.

You have to like the fighter who gets up, the team that comes from behind, the ship that won't sink, the fort that won't surrender.

Snow Chief could have quit in his corner. Stute could have brought him home and put him to bed with a thermometer and a hot-water bottle. Instead he pushed him back off his stool and told him to fight.

They had a lunch for Stute and Grinstead and Rochelle at Hollywood Park Thursday. Snow Chief will run at Hollywood in the Silver Screen Handicap July 5.

In horse race parlance, they have chart buzz words for a race that defies form. "Throw out last," they advise of a race too bad to be true. But, when "throw out last" applies to the Kentucky Derby, a horse has a great deal to prove.

Snow Chief proved it. "I'm glad we didn't decide to come home with our tail between our legs," says Stute.

So, probably, will future breeders prove it. If Snow Chief can duplicate the other Preakness winner, Bold Ruler's record at stud, they may some day throw out the Kentucky Derby altogether as irrelevant. In the nursery, the Preakness is The Star.

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