The best thing that can be said about this week's 95th running of the Preakness at Pimlico is that it will be contested by fewer than 17 runners and thus ought to be a truer test of class than the traffic-muddled Kentucky Derby. No more than 12 colts are likely to start at Baltimore, and maybe as few as nine, which means a fairly wieldy bunch will be dealing with Pimlico's rather tricky conditions—a track that is deeper in texture and demands more maneuverability than Churchill Downs and a race that is 110 yards shorter than the Derby.
This is to take no credit away from Derby winner Dust Commander, who won with ridiculous ease, beating My Dad George by five lengths and the rest of the field from here to East Overshoe. But it will be interesting to see if Dust Commander, winner of the Blue Grass and the Derby on off tracks, will again be able to capitalize on the sort of going he relishes, and it is certain that the other Preakness jockeys are not going to be hasty about giving Dust Commander's rider, Mike Manganello, the rail at any stage of this second Triple Crown classic.
Of even more immediate concern to Dust Commander's owner, Robert Lehmann, and his trainer, Don Combs, is whether their colt is at his best. He had a little heat in his left front ankle last week, which is not exactly what one wants in a potential Preakness favorite. He missed a day or two of light work, and a decision as to whether or not to start him at Pimlico probably won't be made until less than 48 hours before post time. Preakness spectators, aware of all this—and particularly if the track is fast—are not likely to send the Derby winner off as the favorite. Nor, if he starts, is he likely to win.
The first five of those who trailed Dust Commander through the long Churchill Downs stretch are expected to appear for round two. They are My Dad George, High Echelon, Naskra, Silent Screen and Admiral's Shield. In addition, Personality (eighth), Native Royalty (ninth) and Robin's Bug (10th) will be on hand. Some of the others who may make it are Plenty Old, a Santa Anita stakes winner this winter, Stop Time, Oh Fudge and, possibly, Buzkashi. The latter ran in the one-mile Withers at Aqueduct last week and finished fifth to his sprinting stablemate Hagley after being forced to check slightly at the head of the stretch.
The Withers was supposed to provide a few more Preakness starters, but it didn't turn out that way. Hagley took the lead almost at the start and kept it most of the way to beat another sprinter, Delaware Chief, by two lengths. Tatoi, trained by Frank Whiteley for Orme Wilson Jr., was another two lengths back and a length ahead of Greentree Stable's Cut The Comedy, who made a bold move turning for home and then pretty much gave up the whole business, barely hanging on to save fourth money by a head from Buzkashi. (Although Greentree won't have a representative in the Preakness, the stable may have found its No. 1 Belmont Stakes prospect last week in Liberty Card, a gray colt by Sea-Bird and the Bold Ruler mare Time For Bed.) Both Hagley and Buzkashi are owned by Jimmy and Alice Mills of Virginia and trained by Woods Garth. They figured the mile of the Withers would be too short for Buzkashi and too long for Hagley, and were pleasantly surprised by the results, but their decision about the Preakness might be to pass it up completely, reserving Hagley for further sprint stakes and saving Buzkashi for the Jersey Derby on May 30. If Buzkashi should go to the Preakness, he would rate as a distinct come-from-behind threat.
Another non-Derby-starter with a hope of making things stimulating for Dust Commander and his followers was Calumet Farm's Sunny Tim, who had won both the Swift and Bay Shore this spring. Sunny Tim won a mile-and-[1/16] prep at Pimlico last week handily enough but then turned up with an ailing left foreleg and is out at least until the Belmont. One of the runners he beat, Stop Time, will probably give the Preakness a try, futile as it is likely to be.
What of the rest? My Dad George still refuses to run a bad race. His Flamingo and Florida Derby victories were as outstanding as any races of the winter or spring season, and in the Kentucky Derby, although he was clearly outrun in the stretch by Dust Commander, he made a long move into contention from 14th position and was, momentarily, in close traffic on the final turn, when he and Holy Land both dove for an opening, the opening that Holy Land did not get through.
The John Jacobs-trained entry of High Echelon and Personality ran respectably at Churchill Downs. High Echelon, who can't get himself started until his races are half over, came from dead last at the half-mile pole and still managed to finish third, beaten only half a length by My Dad George. Personality, winner of the mile-and-an-eighth Wood Memorial over Silent Screen, was supposed to be the stronger of the Jacobs entries, but he apparently propped at the head of the Churchill Downs stretch at the sight of one of the many puddles on the track and thereafter lost most of his action—and his competitive will as well.
Naskra, the Everglades winner, acquitted himself well in the Derby to finish fourth, especially in view of some minor leg trouble the week before. "He ran fine, I thought, even after missing a few days," says Trainer Phil Johnson. "He has his legs now, is fit and is ready to run. And the Preakness distance won't bother him one bit." Admiral's Shield is by Crozier, a very game runner, but Crozier wasn't his best at these distances, and there is nothing in his son's sixth-place Derby performance to suggest that Admiral's Shield is not a chip off the same sprinter's block.
That leaves Silent Screen, who had every possible chance to win the Derby—he had a length lead at the head of the stretch and an open road ahead of him—and failed. It could have been that he did not like the off track. It also could have been that he did not like the distance. For all his fine record of five wins in six starts last season, Sonny Werblin's chestnut has yet to win a race beyond a mile and 70 yards. The excuses he's had for his failures since then cannot obliterate the possibility that he may not be a classic colt.
Still, the Preakness, as our shortest classic race, affords an excellent winning chance to runners who are simply not up to the Derby's 10 furlongs or the Belmont's mile and a half. In fact, explains Woods Garth, "the pacesetter or the horse who stays just off the pace has the best chance in the Preakness. With the tighter turns at Pimlico, the winner who comes from behind has to be much the best horse." There is ample evidence to support this theory. Come-from-behind Preakness winners such as Carry Back, Tom Rolfe and Damascus were the best horses in their respective Preakness fields. On the other hand, the Preakness also has been won recently by such colts as Bold Ruler, Tim Tam, Bally Ache, Candy Spots, Northern Dancer, Kauai King, Forward Pass and Majestic Prince, all of whom either stayed close up to the early pace or took the lead at the start and held it all the way. Only Damascus, incidentally, of all the above-named, went on to win the Belmont.
If you subscribe to this theory, the best Preakness chances must go to Silent Screen. Personality, Naskra and perhaps Plenty Old. A good deal of racing luck would be needed by High Echelon, Native Royalty, Buzkashi or My Dad George. If Dust Commander can bring the rains to Pimlico, he could pull off another surprise—only this time it would not be a surprise. But if the track does come up fast, the call here is Personality, followed by My Dad George, Silent Screen and Naskra.