If Lucky Debonair had won the Kentucky Derby with overwhelming decisiveness, his victory might have reduced this week's 90th Preakness to the status of an anticlimax. Since his margin was slight, it now seems likely that the mile-and-three-sixteenths second leg of the Triple Crown at Pimlico will be every bit the equal of the Derby in both quality and excitement.
Obviously, one of the factors contributing to this situation is a stubborn disbelief on the part of many Louisville losers that Lucky Debonair is the best 3-year-old. On Derby Day he certainly was, and there can be no disputing the fact that Willie Shoemaker more than compensated for some of his previous erratic Derby rides by handling the winner with flawless skill and judgment. Shoe, for example, saw to it that the son of Vertex utilized his early lick and agility to get into—and out of—that crowded first turn ahead of the trouble that developed behind him. Then, knowing full well that Flag Raiser would try to open up as long a lead as possible on the backstretch, Willie stayed with the pace all the way. After this considerable effort, Shoe found that he still had enough horse under him to open up a three-length lead down the final lane—a lead which ultimately enabled him to stand off the thrilling closing rush of Dapper Dan. But Shoe and his colt will have to do it all over again this week.
One of the imponderables about any Preakness has always been the mystery of individual durability. No one, even the most experienced trainer, can predict with certainty how any young horse will react to the challenge of two demanding distance races within the space of 14 days. Trainer Horatio Luro, for instance, has discovered in recent years how this challenge can bring dramatically different results. After Luro's Decidedly set a Derby track record in 1962, he was not the same colt at Pimlico; without any excuse, he finished a lackluster eighth. In fact, never again did he demonstrate his brilliant Derby form. Luro's Northern Dancer, on the other hand, broke Decidedly's record while winning the 1964 Derby and then went up to Pimlico to win the Preakness with equal distinction two weeks later.
If it is durability—along with sheer ability—that the situation demands, the colt most capable of a Preakness upset is Flag Raiser. This Florida-bred son of Rough'n Tumble, who races for the highly successful Bieber-Jacobs stable, is just about invincible at Aqueduct, where last week he won the $60,000 Withers by eight lengths over Gallant Lad. On the way, Flag Raiser broke the Aqueduct six-furlong record with a clocking of 1:08⅕ and his final time of 1:34⅕ with 126 pounds up, is one of the fastest miles ever run in New York.
Many expected that Flag Raiser, who set the Derby pace before tiring to finish eighth, would be slightly weary in his 12th start of the year (in 1964 he went to the post 21 times). But he took command almost immediately and was never challenged. As his jockey, Bobby Ussery, put it, "You can't criticize a horse for winning. If he gets to running as he did in the Withers nothing can stay with him, and one day he may go as far as he has to." It is interesting to note that in the last 35 Preaknesses, 12 winners led all the way—the most recent being Bold Ruler and Bally Ache.
Speaking of Bold Ruler, it now turns out that both of his eligible sons, Bold Lad and Jacinto, will skip the Pimlico race. Bold Lad came out of the Derby sound but lost 100 pounds in the next week, which led Trainer Bill Winfrey to conjecture that his horse may have had a slight temperature just before post time. Jacinto's right front ankle filled again last week, knocking him out of all competition for the time being.
Native Charger and Hail to All, fourth and fifth in the Derby, will be on hand again—and so will two sons of Ribot who created almost as much excitement in Louisville by finishing second and third as Lucky Debonair did in winning. Ogden Phipps's Dapper Dan and Raymond Guest's Tom Rolfe had typical "racing luck" kinds of excuses for losing. The former was bothered on the first turn and then lost yards of ground circling his field to enter the stretch. If he has the constitution to stand up to another tough race so soon he will be even more dangerous this time. The same goes for Tom Rolfe, whose trainer, Frank Whiteley, was told by Owner Ambassador Raymond Guest from the U.S. Embassy in Dublin last weekend, "I definitely want to get this colt to the Belmont [June 5], but if you think he can make the Preakness as well, let's go." Whiteley does not blame Jockey Ron Turcotte for driving Tom Rolfe toward a nonexistent hole midway in the final turn of the Derby, but he does say, "We didn't plan to be as close to the pace as we wound up. He's a better horse if he comes from behind, and he would have been better if Ron hadn't been forced to check him twice." Maribeau, a third son of Ribot, also is a possible Preakness starter, but he will more likely be kept at Garden State—where he won an allowance race last week—to train for the May 31st Jersey Derby.
The Preakness field may include Turn to Reason, Needles' Count, Selari and Swift Ruler, but not as serious contenders. It should be a race with two distinct, exciting parts. First: Lucky Debonair and Native Charger trying to catch Flag Raiser as the field leaves the backstretch. Second: a charge of come-from-behinders Dapper Dan, Tom Rolfe and Hail to All to overhaul Lucky Debonair in the last sixteenth. Only another absolutely perfect ride by Shoemaker will keep Lucky Debonair from being beaten this time. By whom? Tom Rolfe.