BALTIMORE — Day by day, hour by hour, with the inevitability of sunrise and sunset, horse racing paints itself into a familiar corner from which there is almost never a viable escape. The 140th Preakness Stakes will be run on Saturday at, um, venerable—yeah, venerable—old Pimlico, and it sets up as a terrific sporting event. The top three finishers from a thrilling Kentucky Derby will all run in the Preakness for the first time since 2009 (when filly Rachel Alexandra won), along with at least three intriguing outsiders. It has the makings of a sensational race, with multiple strategic tributaries, all played out in front of roughly 120,000 spectators and a huge national television audience. (All this even without the participation of superstar trainer Todd Pletcher, who will be sitting home at Belmont Park, presumably twirling his mustache and cackling maniacally.)
But that’s not the narrative in Baltimore this week, because when it comes to the Preakness, there is always just one storyline, a 900-pound gorilla of hope and desperation that overwhelms everything surrounding the race and reduces it to a single interrogatory: Can [fill in the name of the Kentucky Derby winner] win the Preakness and go on to Belmont Park in three weeks with a chance to break the [fill in the number of years since Affirmed became the last horse to win the Derby, Preakness and Belmont, in 1978]-year drought and finally give America and the struggling sport of racing the Triple Crown winner it so desperately needs? The current horse is American Pharoah, winner of the Derby on May 2. The current gap is 37 years. That’s the only story. Can he win?
Two points here, before we go too far:
• American Pharoah is a potentially transcendent racehorse. He looked sensational in winning two Derby prep races this spring and showed toughness and will in winning the Derby with a long, grinding stretch drive on a surface he might not have loved to beat Firing Line by a length. “I think [American Pharoah will] run a better race in the Preakness,” says rival trainer D. Wayne Lukas. Pharoah moves over the sandy surface of a racetrack with a fluid grace that even a novice can recognize. Or an expert.
Thursday morning, as Pharoah galloped past the Pimlico clubhouse during a routine workout, veteran jockey Gary Stevens, who will ride Firing Line on Saturday, stood with former jockey Jerry Bailey (now an analyst for NBC) and several journalists and said, only, “F---,” drawing out the expletive’s only vowel sound for effect. Maybe Stevens, an experienced actor who played the great jockey, George Wolff, in the movie Seabiscuit and the fictional jockey, Ronnie Jenkins, in the HBO series Luck, was just playing to his audience. The track is full of secrets and lies, and Stevens couldn’t have been seeing anything he didn’t already know. Still, the big horse does look mighty big.
• I would love to write about a Triple Crown winner as something other than racing history. I would love to check that box and move on. Thirteen times in the 36 years since Affirmed held off Alydar in the Belmont homestretch and became the third Triple Crown winner of the 1970s and the 11th in history, a horse has won the Derby and the Preakness and arrived in New York with the triple in play and a massive public and media bandwagon in tow. The first was Spectacular Bid in 1979, and veteran railbirds still can’t believe he didn’t win; the most recent was California Chrome a year ago. Of the 13, I’ve covered eight, going back to Alysheba in 1987 and Sunday Silence in ’89 and all six since War Emblem in 2002. (Maybe other writers have covered more.)
So that means eight times I’ve spent the three weeks between the Preakness and the Belmont scrounging up angles to keep the story alive, watching up close as owners and trainers who had been so interesting and cooperative in late April became surly and short-tempered by mid-June, worn down by the hype that’s focused solely on them. Eight times I’ve slinked out of Belmont Park in darkness (well, seven, actually, because in 2012 I’ll Have Another scratched on the day before the race), tossed my bag into the back seat of my rental car and driven out of the cavernous track, weary from the quest (yeah, weep for me). So, sure, give me a Triple Crown and I will happily write the heck out of it. But that’s not the only issue here.
Horse racing’s insistence on going all-in on a Triple Crown reduces any other outcome to failure. If American Pharoah doesn’t win the Preakness (he probably will, but maybe not; keep reading), then the entire sport—outside of hardcore fans, who constitute a verifiably small group—disappears until next spring. If American Pharoah does win the Preakness, we will get the predictable swell of excitement (plus a bunch of investigations into owner Ahmed Zayat’s finances) for the three weeks leading to the Belmont and then, as history tells us, an even more deflating defeat. (By the way, when I say “horse racing’s” insistence, I mean media, fans, p.r. firms and NBC. And NBC I can totally understand because the last thing that network wants is to hype a non-Triple Crown Belmont. For NBC, the outcome of that Belmont is almost incidental. The possibility of a Triple Crown brings viewers on a June afternoon.)
The logic behind the Triple Crown frenzy is familiar and flawed—that horse racing “needs” a Triple Crown winner, an equine superstar like Secretariat or Seattle Slew, to save itself from extinction. But would that happen? Suppose American Pharoah romps in the Preakness and then tops Secretariat’s performance in the 1973 Belmont, winning by 31½ lengths in 2:23.99, with the track announcer saying that he’s moving “like an extra-tremendous machine.” Would men weep and women swoon? Would it change the course of the sport, and somehow restore it to a time when fans flocked to America’s giant racetracks on weekday afternoons? I’m going out on a limb and arguing that it would not. It would be very cool. It would create a blip, an uptick on the EKG of the sport. And it would be great for the moment. But it would also be 100 miles wide and two inches deep.
The point? That American Pharoah losing is better for the sport? Well, no. Not that. But how about racing hedges its bets just a little, instead of shoving its chips into the center of the Triple Crown table? Start with Saturday’s Preakness. The field includes not only Pharoah and Derby runner-up Firing Line but also Pharoah’s stablemate, Dortmund (also trained by Bob Baffert), who was third in the Derby, and Danzig Moon, who was fifth in the Derby. Additionally, there are two other fascinating storylines: Lukas has entered Mr. Z after some brazen economic skullduggery, and Divining Rod is the first Preakness entrant for owners Roy and Gretchen Jackson, nine years after Barbaro broke down in the first furlong.
(A word about Pletcher is appropriate here. He opted not to enter any horses in the Preakness, which is his prerogative. Instead, he will wait for the Belmont and quite possibly ambush American Pharoah with fresh horseflesh. This is the scenario that so angered California Chrome minority owner Steve Coburn a year ago that he melted down in a memorable postrace interview, during which he accused the connections of winner Tonalist of taking “the coward’s way out” for not running in the Derby or the Preakness. I don’t agree with Coburn that horses should be required to run all three legs of the Triple Crown. Not practical. The Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont are separate events operated by separate racing commissions. But could Pletcher have maybe entered one horse in the Preakness, like the lightly-raced Materiality, for the good of a sport that’s made him wealthy, but that also struggles in many other ways? That’s on him.)
Even without Pletcher, the Preakness is a fascinating horse race. It usually is where the top finishers show up. In 2007, Curlin turned the tables on Derby winner Street Sense by just a head, with Hard Spun third. This year’s race became vastly more interesting at Wednesday’s post position draw, when Pharoah drew the generally disadvantageous number 1 post position, while Dortmund drew the number 2 and Firing Line, with the wily Stevens, drew the outside number 8 spot. “I can’t believe we drew the one and two,” said Baffert. “Good thing I ate some Tums before the draw.”
In the Derby, Espinoza and American Pharoah started from the No. 15 post, worked gradually to the inside and stalked Stevens from his outside, the strategically superior position. From the inside on Saturday, Espinoza and Martin Garcia, who rides Dortmund, will almost certainly have to hurry out of the gate and move to the front. “It’s what I would do,” says Bailey. And this time, Stevens will be in a stalking position from the outside. “I’ve got options,” says Stevens. “Nothing really bothers Victor, that’s one of his best qualities. But I know I’m sleeping better this week than he is.”
Mr. Z is a potential spoiler of sorts. He was owned by Zayat, who did not want to run him in the Preakness. But Lukas, 79, wanted him in the race and convinced Brad Kelly of Calumet Farm to buy Mr. Z, a remarkable transaction so close to a major race (and a testament to Lukas’s persuasiveness and Kelly’s bankroll). Mr. Z could challenge Baffert’s two colts for the lead early, further complicating the pace scenario.
The reality is that if American Pharoah is truly great, he will chew up and spit out any strategic issues. But there’s little doubt that the Preakness will be a contentious, exciting race on its own merits. It’s worth remembering that on the occasion of the last Triple Crown, the story line was centered more on the fierce rivalry between Affirmed and Alydar than on nailing down the third Triple Crown of the decade.
We’ve reached the end of the column, so I’m expected to make a prediction. O.K., here’s my prediction: fierce racing, decisions under fire, some emotional outcome. Good enough for me, Triple Crown or not.