The Preakness That Wasn’t

There have been many great editions of the Preakness. Following the Kentucky Derby is kind of like following Frank Sinatra on stage — it can’t be easy, but the Preakness has done pretty well delivering epic battles, world class rivalries, historic performances, spectacular equine feats and a bunch of great horse races.

However, the most epic Preakness of all, the one with the most promise, the one that stood to be the greatest battle the historic race had ever seen, sadly, never took place.  I call it the “Preakness That Wasn’t” and the racing world lost out on seeing what hinted at being a race for the ages.

Of course, we lost a lot more following that tragic day, but we’ll come back to that and the Preakness That Wasn’t. First, let’s look at some of the great performances this historic race has produced.

If the Preakness had a personality, it would likely have a chip on its shoulder. Despite its numerous contributions to the Sport of Kings, it is almost like it plays third fiddle to the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes. I think, with all the great races the Preakness has produced, we give it some credit and respect. It is one tough race. Coming back from the Derby on two weeks rest isn’t easy, especially today, when horses race much less frequently and require more time between starts.

Nonetheless, experts, handicappers, fans and bettors alike will tell you the Derby horses have an advantage over the so called “new shooters.” Statistics may support that theory, but statistics are a college math course or something. I’m not sure — and neither is anyone else — exactly what they have to do with a particular horse race in any given year.

If you don’t believe me just look at how many horses without the “proper” Dosage Index to win the Derby, win it anyway (it’s happened twice in the last two years). Every year, crop, race, pace and set of circumstances are different and, in my opinion, should be handicapped accordingly. Rules were made to be broken and, when you successfully do it, you get value. You beat all the bettors with blinkers on, who can’t see past the stats.

By now, maybe, you want to hear about the Preakness That Wasn’t. Not so fast, we’ll get there. Let’s first look at some of the ones that were.

Not only was the 1989 Preakness one of the best editions ever, it was also one of the greatest races ever, and one of the best stretch battles the Sport of Kings has ever given us.

“Absolutely rider error,” Pat Day, second place-finisher Easy Goer’s rider said to Gary Stevens on TVG’s “Legends.”

He blamed himself, but I don’t think Pat gave the other Pat, Patrick Valenzuela, and Sunday Silence as much credit as they were due. Day blamed himself for two mistakes that, in his mind, cost Easy Goer the race. Let’s remember that this East-West rivalry saw these fine colts race four times, with Sunday Silence winning three of them.

In the Preakness, Easy Goer was looking to redeem himself after losing the Derby to Sunday Silence. The excuse that day was the muddy, peanut butter-like strip that was Churchill Downs. Easy Goer reportedly hated it, and he had lost The Breeders’ Cup Juvenile over a similar strip as a two-year old. The track was fast for the ‘89 Preakness and, theoretically, there would be no excuses. Redemption was there for the taking.

Easy Goer broke a tad slow and wound up right behind Sunday Silence. Day felt he had a lot of horse and tried to go around Valenzuela and Sunday Silence. Day says this was mistake one. Valenzuela saw this and tried to push Easy Goer wider by encouraging Sunday Silence to drift out down the backstretch. Day was furious Valenzuela would do this in such a big race and said as much.

I called it race riding.

As the race continued Houston, a D. Wayne Lukas horse who wanted no part of any race further than a mile started to stop right in front of Sunday Silence, which caused Valenzuela to hit the brakes momentarily and, instead of Pat accelerating with Easy Goer, he decided to give him a breather thinking it would take Sunday Silence a few seconds to catch back up to him, if he could at all.

That was what Day said was mistake number two. Sunday Silence was on him in a flash and Valenzuela was mad about checking and had red in his eyes. He pinned Day and Easy Goer on the rail, a place Easy Goer had never been before. Valenzuela leaned all over him and they were bumping harder than they had been earlier in the race down the backstretch. Easy Goer fought back hard, and briefly got a nose in front and Day thought he had him. But Sunday Silence was tenacious and came right back getting his nose back in front. It was a stretch duel for the ages but to know what was going on between these two great riders and horses is the sport at its finest.

Day decided it was time for desperate measures at the eighth pole. He figured since Valenzuela started the aggressive tactics, he’s try some of his own. He steered Easy Goer outward a bit while he still had his nose in front to try and get some more bumping going and get Easy Goer more competitive and fighting harder. Easy Goer was all in, however, and the tank was on empty from his earlier efforts. He was on all heart at that point and just turned his head. He couldn’t go at it with Sunday Silence enough to hold him off. Valenzuela and Sunday Silence remained tenacious and kept Easy Goer pinned and beat him. The ‘89 Preakness also gave us one of the best rides ever. Patrick Valenzuela, wrote a chapter in the race riding book refusing to lose.

When it comes to equine athletic performances, few can rival Afleet Alex in his Preakness. Along with the great claiming warrior from New York, Crème De La Fete, Afleet Alex is the only other horse I ever personally saw practically fall down, get up and still win the race. Crème De La Fete, actually went down to his knees, got up, and won. The trouble is, the great memory is limited to a moment in the race, at the head of the stretch, when Crème De La Fete was out of the camera’s view. Those of us who were there remember, though, and talk of it every now and again. I challenge anyone to tell me they’d wager a single dollar on Crème De La Fete if they could bet the race on the far turn or the half-mile pole or the top of the stretch.

Before we get to Afleet Alex, this is a must see, you will never forget it, and I was there. Remember he goes down when out of the camera’s view, so factor that in. Crème De La Fete in an unforgettable performance sets the stage for Afleet Alex.

After watching that, we can move to the equine athleticism of Afleet Alex in the 2005 Preakness. I could never quite understand why Ramon Dominquez whacked Scrappy T left handed at the precise moment he did. They were just turning into the stretch, and Scrappy T was trying not to bear out and lose ground, as he should be. Ramon’s job was to help him. But at the worst possible second, in my opinion, Ramon hit him hard and low left handed, something quite likely to encourage a horse to bear out.

Now, I’m no jockey, and am reluctant to criticize or second guess them, but I am an avid race watcher and student of the game. Scrappy T bore out just as I anticipated he would, and went right into the path of Afleet Alex and Jeremy Rose, who were launching a serious run for the win. Afleet Alex momentarily lost his footing and, in an incredible display of human reaction time and awareness (and both human and equine athletic ability), Rose snatched Afleet Alex up and the horse regained his footing and composure and amazed the sporting world to go on and get the Woodlawn Vase, or Preakness trophy, created by Tiffany and Company in 1860 for what was then The Woodlawn Racing Association. You can watch in amazement here:

You can’t talk about the Preakness without mentioning Secretariat’s dazzling performance (in every sense of the word). I don’t want to get into the timing controversy too much. The Teletimer said 1:55; the Pimlico hand-timer said 1:54.2; two Daily Racing Form clockers said 1:53.2. The track record was 1:54 set by Canonero II in the 1971 Preakness.

In June of 2012, the matter was officially put to rest, at least politically and statistically. The Maryland Jockey Club, at the request of Secretariat’s owner Penny Chenery, held a meeting where, after testimony and a review of all the information, assigned Secretariat a final time of 1:53. That gave him the record — but it was how he did it that I loved.

Secretariat dropped back as expected, but, unexpectedly, Ron Turcotte turned him loose on the clubhouse turn and he inhaled the field with one of the boldest moves racing has ever seen. He won the mile and three sixteenths race on that turn. Watch the move here:

I guess we can now get to the Preakness That Wasn’t. There is no point in showing it. We can only imagine the outcome and what may have followed.

In 2006, Barbaro entered the gate at Pimlico for the Preakness as an undefeated Kentucky Derby champion. An easy Derby winner who looked better than any horse I ever saw in their gallop-out after capturing the Roses on the first Saturday in May. He looked like he could have gone around again.

Bernardini was the new shooter who some thought had a chance, and he went on to prove himself a very capable racehorse. Barbaro against Bernardini in the 2006 Preakness would have been some race to see. After Barbaro tragically broke down coming out of the gate, Bernardini went on to win impressively.

Taking nothing away from Bernardini, I anticipate a very different outcome had Barbaro been able to run. Who knows, we might not have had to wait 37 years for our next Triple Crown winner. With all the great races and performances, the Preakness has given us, it’s the one it didn’t that sticks out to me. We’ll just never know.

RIP Barbaro.

Should Nyquist win on Saturday, which he has more than a fair chance of doing, we’ll head to The Belmont with an undefeated two-year old champion and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner going for the Triple Crown.

Remember: Before American Pharoah, many said it was too hard, we have to change something. Well, in the ‘70s, which gave us three Triple Crown winners, many said it was too easy, we have to change something.

Racing is streaky.

The ‘70s also could have given us five Triple Crown winners with a little luck. Riva Ridge hated the slop; Bee Bee Bee, horse who defeated Riva Ridge in the 1971 Preakness, couldn’t warm him up on a fast track.

Spectacular Bid was surely good enough to do it, but an ill-timed ride by a young, inexperienced Ronnie Franklin, and possibly an open safety pin dropped on the shed row floor, cost him his chance to get on the illustrious list of Triple Crown champions. That would have been five out of 10 Triple Crown winners in the ‘70s.

Let’s see what the Sport of Kings has in store for us this year. I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait!