Not long before the Preakness was run off last Saturday afternoon at Pimlico, Little Current's owner, John Galbreath, was wandering around the box area trying to remember, 11 years after his Kentucky Derby winner Chateaugay finished second in the Preakness, where the devil his horse might be stabled. When he finally found Trainer Lou Rondinello and looked into Little Current's stall, Galbreath saw his colt standing docilely in one corner, sound asleep. It was three hours to post time.
"Sure has a nice disposition, hasn't he?" said Galbreath, with the look of a man wondering how much time it would take for his colt to wake up and be ready for the day's business.
Little Current's jockey, Miguel Rivera, came down from New York with his fellow Puerto Rican, Angel Cordero Jr., who won the Kentucky Derby on Cannonade. After the Derby, Cordero said he was going to give Rivera $3,000 of his $27,000 jockey fee. This purse splitting, called "saving," is considered permissible for two jockeys riding an entry from the same stable, but because that was not the case in the Derby—Rivera rode Rube the Great—it was strongly suggested by the racing commission that Cordero express his friendship in some other way. O.K., said Cordero. He and his wife were going to Pimlico, and they invited Rivera to go with them. Unfortunately, when they arrived at their Baltimore hotel only one room was available and, naturally, it was given to Mr. and Mrs. Cordero. A cot was fetched from somewhere and set up for Rivera, and he curled up on it in the middle of a deserted banquet hall the night before he was to ride Little Current.
The Preakness was proof that rest and sleep, whether on a cot in a banquet hall or in a stall in a Pimlico barn, have their just rewards. Three hours after John Galbreath caught his money earner dozing, Little Current, with Rivera up, came charging from last place, slipped through daringly on the rail and ran away from his rivals to win the 99th Preakness by seven widening lengths. It was more than sweet revenge after the atrocious luck Little Current had experienced during the crowded, slambang Derby. It was a thoroughly convincing triumph over the best of his class, all of whom were carrying scale weight of 126 pounds in the mile and [3/16] race on the Pimlico strip. The track had been soaked by rain the night before and was sloppy for most of the day's card, but by the time the 13-horse Preakness field came out the label had been switched to "Good," and it was, in fact, fast. Little Current, who went off at odds of 13 to 1, reached the finish in 1:54⅗ and if some critics are still complaining that this is a stumblebum crop of 3-year-olds, they should be reminded that in all its history the Preakness has only twice recorded a faster time: Canonero's track record of 1:54 in 1971 and Secretariat's disputed 1:54[2/5] last year. The only other colt to hit the wire in 1:54[3/5] was Nashua in 1955, and it has never been fashionable to refer to Nashua as the best of a poor crop.
May 26, 1974
"I've always thought our colt was better than a fourth-or fifth-place finisher," Galbreath had been saying before the race, even though that was more or less where Little Current ended up in the Derby, the Blue Grass Stakes and the Flamingo, following a very impressive victory in the Everglades in March. After the Preakness, Galbreath said graciously, "In racing, you have good luck one day, bad luck the next, and there's no use complaining about it. We've won two Derbies, with Chateaugay and Proud Clarion, and Chateaugay won the Belmont. So the Preakness is a classic we really wanted to win. It's a very happy day for Darby Dan Farm."
It was also a happy day for those who were not convinced that Cannonade was about to become another Secretariat. In reviewing films of the Derby, in which Cannonade extricated himself from his 22 rivals with one thunderous move between horses on the turn home, many failed to notice what Little Current did. As he and Judger dawdled along in last place up the backstretch at Churchill Downs, they both were bothered at one point by Flip Sal, who broke down right in front of them. When a hole opened briefly near the half-mile pole, both dived for it, but the hole closed again and neither made it. Judger, who finished eighth, never did get free for a decent stretch run, but Little Current did, belatedly. He moved from 20th place, made up 10 or more lengths and finished a respectable fifth. "After that rough trip, he deserves another chance," said Galbreath at the time. "He's bound to improve off his Derby effort."
When Starter Eddie Blind sprang the latch to start the Preakness, Jockey Donald Macbeth, one step out of the gate on Buck's Bid, fell off as his mount stumbled. While Macbeth was picking himself and his pride out of the Baltimore mud, Destroyer and Hudson County were zinging off to lead the other 10 horses into the first turn. Cordero had Cannonade back in the eighth spot and Rivera was jogging along dead last with Little Current.
The leaders were closely followed by Silver Florin, Jolly Johu and Heir to the Line, but most of the attention was focused on the red and yellow silks of Cannonade. When Cordero moved him up to sixth on the backstretch, it seemed to almost everyone that he was in perfect position from which to launch a winning drive around the far turn. But, said Cordero later, "Cannonade never really leveled. He was slipping, and when he hit soft spots he slipped around so much I knew he'd never win." Rivera, meanwhile, was keeping Little Current on the rail for the whole trip, and it paid off handsomely. Saving ground, he crept steadily up from last place, uncorked his real drive around the far turn and slipped through to third place by the time the field rounded into the top of the stretch. "Cannonade was worrying me," Rivera said later, "but I thought if I could get through on the inside just once more I could give him a run for it."
Rivera got the chance almost immediately. Jolly Johu, never worse than fourth, had been on the rail, but he came out ever so slightly on the final turn. When he did, Rivera shot Little Current through an almost imperceptible opening. Cannonade had taken the lead, and he increased his advantage to half a length approaching the eighth pole. Heir to the Line was giving way, and Jolly Johu couldn't keep up anymore. Then, suddenly, nobody could keep up, as Little Current rushed by all of them. It was not even a struggle. And even as Little Current was stunning the crowd with the facility of his triumph, there were other surprises. The 24-to-1 shot Neapolitan Way charged from far back to finish second, a full length in front of Cannonade, who barely held off Jolly Johu for third place. Still another long shot, Kin Run, was fifth. After that it was Heir to the Line, J.R.'s Pet, Hudson County, Rube the Great, Silver Florin, Destroyer and All Game.
Although he has won only three of 12 lifetime starts and only two of eight in this mixed-up 3-year-old season, there was nothing fluky about Little Current's Preakness victory. Few colts have such classic bloodlines. His sire, Sea-Bird, won both the Epsom Derby and the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe in 1965 to achieve, in some quarters at least, the title "Horse of the World." Sea-Bird was also the sire of the best horse currently racing in Europe, the American-bred Allez France. Luiana, Little Current's mother, was un-raced, but she is by the English 2,000 Guineas winner, My Babu, and is a half-sister to both the former champion handicap mare Primonetta, and the Derby and Belmont winner Chateaugay. Galbreath says, with a contented smile, "This isn't a bad kind of broodmare to be owning, is it?"
Little Current would not appear to be a bad kind of colt to be owning, either, even though in his next start, the Belmont Stakes on June 8, he will be up against Cannonade again and Judger, who skipped the Preakness, and a few other survivors of the early wars of 1974. The Belmont might be quite a tussle. Little Current and Cannonade and Judger could excite the crowd for the entire mile and a half even if nobody else went in against them. And while most people have put thoughts of a Triple Crown away for another year, Cordero has not. With his usual big, toothy grin, he says, "These two horses will give a much better race on a fast track. And remember, whichever way it goes in the Belmont, right now it's two down, one to go for a Triple Crown for Puerto Rico."