BALTIMORE — Eleven horses were entered Wednesday for the 123rd running of the Preakness, but a quarter-century of history says that only four of them have a chance at Pimlico on Saturday.
The Preakness, the middle leg in the Triple Crown series, ought to hang out a sign that says: Non-Kentucky Derby Horses, Don't Apply.
As they've been doing for years, trainers rolled into Pimlico this week with horses that skipped the Derby. There are seven of them in the field this time, and their trainers have about 48 hours left to rationalize that they've got a chance at Pimlico because they're running The Fresh Horse, a horse that wasn't wrung out by the rigors of the 1 1/4 miles at Churchill Downs two weeks ago.
Trouble is, the theory doesn't wash. Only three of the last 25 Preakness winners did not run in the Derby.
If the pattern holds Saturday, the Preakness will be won by Real Quiet, the winner of the Derby; or Victory Gallop, Cape Town or Basic Trainee, who finished second, fifth and last, respectively, in Louisville.
Even Coronado's Quest, who was installed as the 2-1 favorite off his win in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct five weeks ago, is along for the ride.
"He's a fast horse, and fast horses win at this track," said Clem Florio, the Pimlico linemaker. "I'm also buying into the notion that the horse has been better behaved since he had the throat surgery before the Wood."
A win by Coronado's Quest or any of the other Derby bypassers would end a 14-year run that started here with Gate Dancer in 1984. The last horse to win the Preakness without running in the Derby was Deputed Testamony in 1983. The only others since 1973 have been Aloma's Ruler in 1982 and Codex in 1980.
Deputed Testamony, who was 14-1, really didn't have the Derby winner to worry about. Sunny's Halo developed a rash going into the Preakness, and trainer David Cross, who's running Classic Cat in Saturday's race, says in retrospect that it was a mistake to have run Sunny's Halo. The Derby winner finished sixth, beaten by more than 11 lengths.
The year before, Aloma's Ruler was 6-1 against a field that didn't even include the Derby winner. Eddie Gregson, after winning at Churchill Downs with Gato Del Sol, infuriated Pimlico's management by skipping the Preakness and waiting for the Belmont Stakes, the windup to the Triple Crown. Gregson theorized that Gato Del Sol's plodding, late-running style didn't fit Pimlico's sharp, speed-favoring turns.
In 1980, through an oversight, trainer Wayne Lukas didn't nominate Codex to the Kentucky Derby. The Triple Crown's supplementary-entry rule was years away. The big colt warmed up for Pimlico by winning the Santa Anita and Hollywood derbies.
Lukas still has a framed, enlarged photo of the race page from the 1980 Preakness program hanging in his California home.
"Codex was the biggest, strongest, best horse that year," he said. "I'm convinced that he would have won the Kentucky Derby too, had he been able to run. But you look at the names on the wall and you can see what a bad field of 3-year-olds it was. None of those horses went on to do much of anything. Other than Genuine Risk [the filly who won the Derby and ran second in the Preakness], it was just a bad bunch of horses."
Lukas has won the Preakness four times--after Codex came Tank's Prospect, Tabasco Cat and Timber Country. All four weren't good enough to win the Derby, but the important thing is that they ran in it. Lukas is shooting for his fifth Preakness victory with two horses--Cape Town and the underachieving sprinter Baquero, a curiosity in a race with several curiosities.
"I don't know what it is, but the horses that run third or fourth for me in the Derby usually run better here," Lukas said Wednesday. "With my Preakness horses, it always seems that I'm running a race behind."
By contrast, Lukas' three Derby winners--Winning Colors, Thunder Gulch and Grindstone--didn't win the Preakness, Grindstone not running at Pimlico after suffering a career-ending injury.
"The Derby brings out the best horses," Lukas said. "It seasons them for the next race. It toughens them up. If a Derby horse doesn't win the Preakness, it takes a Derby-caliber horse to win here. You need a career-best out of a horse to win any of these races."
Chick Lang was the flabbergasted Pimlico general manager when Gregson opted to skip the Preakness with Gato Del Sol.
Told about the 22-3 edge that Derby horses have over non-Derby runners in the last 25 years, Lang wasn't impressed.
"Every race every year is different," Lang said. "All the rest of it is just talk. I'm not a dosage [breeding] guy, I don't believe in post positions being a factor, I don't think any of that stuff means a damn thing. The only thing that matters in the Preakness is what the horse does the first 50 yards out of the gate. That's where the race is won or lost, not in the history book."
Horse Racing Notes