A number of jockeys and trainers either forgot or ignored a vital piece of horse racing strategy at Baltimore's Pimlico race course last Saturday and were swiftly penalized for this mass mental lapse.
After watching Bally Ache's 25 previous races, they all certainly appreciated one simple fact: if you don't run at this colt both quickly and continually, he's gone—for good. But, in the 84th Preakness, in which he was opposed by only five other colts, none of Bally Ache's opponents chose to act on this knowledge. The result was an easy four-length victory after a brilliant tactical ride by Jockey Bob Ussery (above).
All week in Baltimore the Bally Ache camp (the happy entourage of Former Owner Leonard Fruchtman and the crowd accompanying New Owner Joe Arnold) was bubbling over with optimism. While Venetian Way's trainer, Vic Sovinski, put out an early and repeated signal that the Derby winner just might not care too much for Pimlico's deep, sandy track, the Bally Ache boys beamed around the clock. Joe Arnold cornered Trainer Jimmy Pitt on the eve of the race and said, "Who do we have to be most frightened of?" Pitt rolled a pair of bloodshot eyes back at Arnold and cracked, "Nobody."
Pitt wasn't exactly whistling Dixie either. Part of the morning of the race he spent drinking champagne with friends in his hotel room, and when someone suggested that this might be construed as a slightly premature celebration, Bally Ache's trainer rolled those eyes again and said, "We've had our luck with this colt. And our luck isn't running out yet."
When Ussery appeared in the paddock, Pitt had the word for him, too. "If you can slow it down enough to do the first half in :50 we're home free. When you hit that far turn, open up five lengths and they'll never come close to you." Ussery was put aboard, and the smiling face of this pleasant Oklahoma youth suddenly turned dead serious. "From the moment I got on him," he recalled later, "I knew he was ready to run. He took hold of the bit and everything about the way he moved and acted told me he was set." As Ussery moved off toward the post parade, he leaned over for one last word to Jimmy Pitt. "We'll win it," he said.
As he shot off to the lead at the start, Ussery brought Bally Ache from his inside post position out to mid-track almost as if he were inviting some of his pursuers to run into an early trap. "Not quite," he said later. "I wanted to control 10 feet of the track before I hit the first turn. If I was both wide and on top, I knew I could swing into that turn with a two-length lead."
He carried it off perfectly. Venetian Way, Bill Hartack up, was closest, but Ussery, who has never exactly been known as a professor of pace, had by now succeeded in his first objective. He had slowed the pace down to :24[1/5] for the first quarter and :48[4/5] for the half. He had a tight hold on his horse, and if anyone wanted to range up and challenge him he was ready—and so was Bally Ache. "The key to this whole thing," said Ussery, "was those first fractions. In the Derby I did the first quarter in :23[3/5] and the half in :46[4/5]. The Derby time for six furlongs was 1:11 flat; today I slowed it down to 1:13[2/5]. When everyone else took back off me they just didn't realize I wasn't going as fast as they expected me to."
"When I saw that 1:13⅖" said Trainer Pitt, "I knew there wasn't a horse around who could hope to catch us. Bobby fooled 'em with his slow pace, and I knew we were home free."
Home free it was, too. Venetian Way and Divine Comedy made only feeble efforts to overhaul Bally Ache nearing the far turn. Ussery whacked his mount a couple of times rounding the turn as Venetian Way made a final and futile run at him, but the race was really over. Once leading by five lengths, he still had four at the finish over Victoria Park.
Favored Venetian Way tired badly and finished fifth. If he had any excuse at all (barring a slight cut on his right front coronet), it would have to be the same one that Bally Ache could fall back on for his Kentucky Derby defeat: he just did not run his true race. Bally Ache, on the other hand, most certainly did. And the more one sees of this remarkable creature the more one is forced to admire him and his marvelous talent. Incidentally, in eight meetings between Bally Ache and Venetian Way, Bally Ache has now beaten his rival six times—a ratio which strongly suggests that Bally Ache is the better horse.
The mile and three-sixteenths of the Preakness didn't bother Bally Ache in the least. This points up something that Jimmy Pitt has been saying for a long time: "If nobody hooks this colt in the first half mile, he's capable of running five miles or more." With this in mind—and with the knowledge that few 3-year-olds who were not in the Preakness are going to be serious threats in the immediate future—the Joe Arnold syndicate will surely send Bally Ache to the June 11 Belmont Stakes.
The course for Venetian Way, however, hasn't been precisely plotted. Trainer Sovinski was openly disappointed—as he has been before—in Hartack's ride. "I was surprised," he said, "that a rider like Hartack wouldn't realize the slow pace." Hartack's general attitude about riding Venetian Way, which Sovinski describes as "all wrong," has also apparently cost the temperamental jockey any chance for future rides on the Derby winner. "There seems to be," says Sovinski, "no point in going on together."
The happiest people at Pimlico were, of course, the members of the Arnold syndicate. In winning $121,000 in their first start as owners of Bally Ache, they saw the colt's earnings move up to $664,527. Their ultimate objective is to surpass Round Table's world-record total of $1,749,869. When you consider that at the same stage of his career, Round Table had earned only $148,051 you appreciate how well Bally Ache is doing.
In fact, the way that Bally Ache mopped up his Preakness field, even champion Round Table might have had trouble catching him.