Victor Coladonato was acting stubborn. "I ain't gonna put no suit on," he said. "Ain't even got a suit with me. You don't understand. You can't carry too much stuff in that hearse."
His friend Billy Connors got up and poured a little of the Budweiser he was drinking over the hissing steaks with all the care of a master chef adding a spoonful of Burgundy to the coq au vin. He tried gentle persuasion again. "Everybody's gonna be watching you saddling up Junior in that infield, Victor. Then you're gonna be seated in the grandstand. In a box," He looked to Pat O'Brien for support.
"I'm worried, Victor," Pat said sorrowfully. "You're gonna look a little rough out there." He turned and explained the problem to a visitor. "You know, he was wearing jeans when he went up for that Woodlawn trophy."
This was last week and the group was discussing Saturday's 103rd running of the Preakness at Pimlico. This is not a sartorial contest for trainers, but even if his friends succeeded in getting Coladonato out of his jeans and into any kind of suit, he would be no match for the urbane John Veitch, trainer of Alydar, or for the flamboyant Laz Barrera, in charge of the great Affirmed. But if Coladonato's plans to run the horse he calls Junior—more formally, Iron Legend—had worked out, he would not have been without some backing. Sentimental backing perhaps, but backing nevertheless.
Coladonato's horse—his one and only horse—which he owns as well as trains, is huge: 17 hands of dark bay colt. The sire is Iron Peg, whose stud fee was $750 when Coladonato bred him with Jenny Legend. Recently, Victor gave Jenny Legend away. Coladonato himself just breaks five feet, and though he still has the black, luxuriant, wavy hair of an idol of the silent movies and a noble mustache, his face is lined heavily by 54 knockabout years of galloping and rubbing horses on tracks all over the U.S., a hard life diversified by construction work. Until recently, when Iron Legend won the $35,850 Woodlawn Stakes at Pimlico, scarcely anyone had heard of Coladonato or Junior, and even then their fame would hardly have gone beyond the bettors who were paid $27.20 on the win. But then the extraordinary fact leaked out that Coladonato lived in—slept in—a converted hearse.
Coladonato has become a little defensive about his hearse. When he remembers, he calls it a van and will speak up fiercely for its eminently convenient features. He has tricked it out with chintz curtains of his own making and he has wired up a TV set to the cigarette lighter. It is a 1954 Cadillac, spawned in a year when they were still making them in the gangster look. From its original solemn black it became electric blue somewhere along the line, and Coladonato had thought of celebrating his Woodlawn win with yet another paint job. Instead, he has acquired a 1960 Cadillac convertible for roadwork—retaining the hearse for sleeping quarters—and as a hunting car. "Got to have a car big enough for my dogs," he says.
Now with a little more than a week to go to the Preakness, the, uh, van was parked under the trees that surround the barn area at Bowie in Maryland. Silhouetted against a young moon rising in the darkening sky, the old vehicle looked as if it ought to have Vincent Price at the wheel in a scarlet-lined opera cloak, but the gaiety of the little group gathered outside Iron Legend's stall soon dispelled that impression. There was Pat O'Brien, once a jockey but now the trainer of a couple of horses; Billy Connors, who exercises horses; and Jack Russell, who boxed in the old days. "We got onions, we got Italian bread, we got beans and we got steak," Pat announced, popping open more beer cans and inviting all comers to an al fresco supper.
Aside from the company, the stall at Bowie was a new luxury for Coladonato and his horse. Until recently Iron Legend was housed in a ramshackle building some distance from the track called Mac's Barn. No electricity, no running water. In the depths of the late hard winter, Coladonato moved his hearse closer to the manure heap for warmth. Every morning when it was feasible he and Iron Legend would weave through heavy traffic to get to the track for workouts. But Coladonato is what the Scots call a wee hard man.
That winter at Mac's Barn—Coladonato paid $20 a month rent—almost finished off Iron Legend. His 2-year-old career had already been set back by sore shins and muscular trouble in his back. One January Sunday, Coladonato returned to discover his horse had pneumonia. His temperature went to 105°. He almost died. Iron Legend, in fact, never raced as a 2-year-old.
The privations for both horse and man were, perhaps, avoidable. "I just arrived at Bowie and put in for a stall," Coladonato recalls. "They wouldn't give me no stall, even when the racing at Bowie was over. They had a lot of accommodation sitting there, room for 200 horses. But I couldn't get one. They told me to take him to Charles Town. I was upset. They told me my horse wasn't good enough for a stall at Bowie."
And indeed, when Iron Legend made his debut less than four weeks ago, there was nothing lustrous about his performance. He got into trouble negotiating the bends at Pimlico and though he finished third, he was relegated to fifth when the stewards concluded he had interfered with other runners. There was a happier ending two weeks later at Keystone. Iron Legend won by four lengths, only[4/5] second off the track record of 1:41 for a mile and [1/16] And on May 6, while more aristocratic 3-year-olds were contesting the Kentucky Derby, Iron Legend took the Woodlawn Stakes, winning $23,302 for his owner.
Coladonato did not watch the Derby on TV. "I had work to do. I was washing Junior down when it was run," he points out indignantly. But however much he protested, it was clear that ever since he acquired Iron Legend, he has had the classics in mind.
There is heavy artillery massed for Saturday's race. Even a horse of the quality of Believe It, third in the Kentucky Derby, was an uncertain entry until last weekend. At 1[3/16] miles and with sharp turns, the Preakness seems to be a two-horse race between Alydar and Affirmed, with the odds heavily on the latter.
But win or lose, it would have been a great and deserved day for Coladonato when he took Iron Legend to the Preakness. Although he was eventually accorded a stall at Bowie, last Sunday he had the pleasure of vanning his horse to Pimlico, there to share the same barn as Alydar and Affirmed. The Pimlico management, apparently realizing the media possibilities, also gave Coladonato space for his hearse in front of a backstretch tombstone honoring a mongrel dog named Barney, a popular mascot that died at age 12 in 1974. Last year Seattle Slew's trailer was parked in the same spot. All of which is a long way from Mac's Barn.
At Junior's last full workout at Bowie, there were roars of encouragement from other riders as Coladonato took him to a full gallop. "Hope he kicks the hell out of all them big horses," yelled a local patriot. "Alydar and all them sons!"
It was a big hope. Monday morning Coladonato took Iron Legend for a workout at Pimlico. Something was amiss. A few days before, the colt had suffered what Coladonato thought was a minor bump in his stall. It didn't turn out to be minor and the dream ended on the Pimlico backstretch with Iron Legend unable to run full out. Minutes later, Victor Coladonato pulled him from the Preakness.