There may have been more startling upsets than the one provided by Mrs. Halina Braunstein's Royal Orbit in last week's 83rd Preakness, but seldom has there been a more sentimentally popular one. Exactly a year ago his trainer, roly-poly, jovial Reggie Cornell, showed up at the old Pimlico course with the greatest attraction out of California since the discovery of the gold nugget. His name was Silky Sullivan, and while Silky was turning in another of those too-awful-to-be-true eastern performances (after finishing 12th in the Kentucky Derby he was eighth in the Preakness), Trainer Cornell was busier making friends than a congressman at a P.T.A. clambake. "I'll be back another day," Reggie had told his new friends, "and the next time it'll be a different story. Wait and see."
Last week Reggie did come back—and it was a different story. Thirty-one thousand fans on Saturday saw Royal Orbit act almost more like Silky than Silky himself, roaring from dead-last place—almost 15 lengths off the pace as the 11-horse field headed up the backstretch—with one fabulous burst of speed into the stretch to win by a comfortable four lengths over game little Sword Dancer.
It was a thoroughly spectacular performance in every way, and although it can hardly stamp Royal Orbit as the true equal of the absent Kentucky Derby winner Tomy Lee, the results of this Preakness certainly give another deserved boost to California racing, which is steadily gaining in both class and prestige with every passing season. Gone, thank goodness, are the days when eastern racing men can toss out the performances at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park with cynical disregard.
Preakness week had been one of subdued optimism for most of the contending stables. Reggie Cornell was somewhat more confident, and rightly so. "In most of Royal Orbit's recent beaten races he's had legitimate excuses. In the California Derby we lost only by a neck, but the jock hit him when he shouldn't have and it probably cost us the race. In the Kentucky Derby we drew post position 17, ran into traffic problems all the way and still made up 14 lengths to finish fourth. My only real worry when he shipped to Pimlico was that he might not like the track. It's deeper than ours in the West and deeper than Churchill Downs. But when he won the Preakness Prep [six days before the big one] he was skimming over the track pretty good, so at least we knew it couldn't have bothered him any."
As it turned out, the only thing that bothered Royal Orbit on Preakness Day was a little rough stuff at the start. Breaking from post position 6, he came out badly, and then he was interfered with by Rico Tesio's bearing out. "I had to take ahold of him quick, so's he wouldn't get banged around too much," said Rider Willie Harmatz, "and what it meant was that we got off dead last and stayed that way around the first turn and well up the backstretch."
While Harmatz and Royal Orbit were plodding along back there, a 200-to-1 shot named Marauder was winging off to try and steal the winner's $136,200 share of this richest race (gross purse: $190,000) ever run for 3-year-olds. Marauder, followed first by Sundown II and soon by Sword Dancer, Festival King and First Landing, opened up a four-length lead before Royal Orbit, on his own initiative, decided to pull out all stops.
Following his poor start, he had hardly been the center of attraction. Nearly every eye was trained apprehensively at the head of the pack, waiting to see just when Willie Shoemaker aboard Sword Dancer and Eddie Arcaro on First Landing would set sail after Marauder, "We were running easy," said Shoe, "and I didn't think there was anything to worry about. I had position, I knew that first horse would start coming back to me, and I still hadn't asked my colt for any real speed—so what was there to worry about? " Arcaro laughed when he recalled his situation at the same time. "I had position, too. At least I had up to the half-mile pole. But after that he quit on me."
Then, suddenly, before Shoemaker, Arcaro or anybody else could dictate the strategy to be used next, it happened. And nobody was more surprised than Harmatz.
"We had just passed the 5/8 pole," said Willie Harmatz, "and Royal Orbit was running under wraps, easily and smoothly. I was just sittin' still, then all of a sudden he takes a notion he wants to go on the lead. I never hit him once."
The move began without stirring consternation in anyone. Royal Orbit, running on the outside, picked up the first few stragglers, but now, instead of mingling in the center of the pack, he had full steam up. Just as Shoemaker was about to take the lead from a tiring Marauder, he went by like a fire engine on an open country road. "I never saw anything like it," said Shoe. "It wasn't that Sword Dancer was tired or quitting. He was running good right to the end, but that one burst of speed turning into the stretch fixed us good."
Not a horse in this field was making up ground on Royal Orbit as he thundered across the finish line after getting the mile and three-sixteenths in 1:57 even. The handsome, well-built chestnut had put on a dazzling show of speed and stamina which should do him no harm at all when he next steps out to take on all comers in the June 13 mile-and-a-half Belmont Stakes. But at this point, what with the cripples and the weary 3-year-olds haunting the eastern tracks, it's hard to figure out which colts are even vaguely capable of going the Belmont's distance.
Through all the excitement of the Preakness doings the two people who took the victory most calmly and graciously were Trainer Cornell and Royal Orbit's owner, Mrs. Halina Braunstein. The latter, a pretty brown-eyed brunette who doesn't look old enough to have a 20-year-old married daughter, has been in racing five years. The stable, which passed on to Mrs. Braunstein following her husband's death last winter, never made the big time until the acquisition of Royal Orbit for $19,500 at a Louis B. Mayer dispersal sale. Now that the star of her six-horse stable has won over $220,000 and in 18 starts has never been out of the purse money, Mrs. Braunstein is more anxious than ever to keep on going.
And what does Reggie Cornell think about all this? Late Saturday afternoon he was still drifting along on cloud nine. As he walked briskly off the track with the blanket of bogus black-eyed Susans there came over the noise of congratulatory shouts a particularly loud yell: "And here comes Silky Sullivan." Reggie stopped and laughed. "You said it, pal," he shouted back. "Silky came back to Pimlico today."