Steward J. Fred Colwill, looking lost and bewildered, is standing at the window of the lofty aerie that is the steward's stand at Pimlico and staring across the racetrack far below him. He is waiting for the 10th race to go off at Old Hilltop, but there is more of the immediate past than the present on his mind right now. He is listening, grimly expressionless, as steward Edward Litzenberger takes the calls that have somehow found their way through the overworked Pimlico switchboard to their quarters.
"You sound like a jerk, the way you're talking," Litzenberger says to a caller. "Gentlemen don't use that kind of language." Click.
Here comes another: "Well, that's your opinion," Litzenberger says. "Now I must say that's your privilege. Good." Click.
And another: "You're entitled to your opinion. What do you base that opinion on?" Pause. "Really? Really? When did this bumping and hitting take place?"
May 25, 1980
Hanging up the phone and shaking his head, Litzenberger finally makes what is surely his most unerring observation of the day: "This is beginning to sound like a talk show."
Just 20 minutes before, as part of one of the most controversial episodes in Triple Crown racing, the four Pimlico stewards—Colwill, Litzenberger, Clinton Pitts and Lawrence Lacey—had decided unanimously to let stand the order of finish in last Saturday's Preakness Stakes. Codex, the California invader owned by the Tartan Stable, had crossed the finish line 4¾ lengths in front of the Kentucky Derby winner, Genuine Risk. He had drifted into the filly coming off the turn for home—just as she was gaining on the colt—and had carried her out toward the middle of the track, effectively thwarting any challenge she might have mounted against him. What made the incident even more an issue was that it was clear, on videotape replays of the race, that Codex' rider, Angel Cordero Jr., had glanced back and obviously had seen the filly coming before Codex started to drift, thus raising the nasty suspicion that he had deliberately let Codex swing wide to carry her out. As if this were not enough, Genuine Risk's jockey, Jacinto Vasquez, charged in lodging a foul claim that Cordero had struck the filly on top of her head in the course of his right-handed whipping.
If it was not absolutely clear from viewing the race or replays of the incident on TV that Cordero had indeed struck Genuine Risk with his whip, it was perfectly evident that Codex had carried her out and left her hanging in the middle of the racetrack. The race and the replays were seen on TV by upwards of 30 million people, and many got immediate corroboration of what they thought they saw when Eddie Arcaro, doing color for the ABC telecast, ventured that, if he were a steward, he would have taken Codex' number down. When the stewards sustained the order of finish, the switchboard at Pimlico lit up with calls of protest.
What had promised to be one of the most memorable races in recent years thus dissolved into a moment within the race, one darkened by a shadow as long as the 1,152 feet of the Pimlico homestretch. For this Preakness had what no other Preakness had ever had—a filly, the first in 65 years to win a Kentucky Derby, making a race for it in the second leg of the Triple Crown. And she was no fluke, no dainty little thing who had beaten a bunch of bad colts. The knock of a few months ago, that this was a mediocre crop of colts, wasn't valid in May. She had won the Derby in a powerful, decisive performance, one that not merely set her apart from other members of her generation but also suggested, emphatically, that she might be among the very best Allies ever bred in this country. After Genuine Risk beat Rumbo by a length in the Derby—and he wouldn't have caught her if they had run twice again around Churchill Downs—one of the few colts given any chance to beat her was Codex, the winner of the Santa Anita and Hollywood Park Derbies, who early this spring had emerged as California's dominant 3-year-old.
Codex hadn't been nominated to the Kentucky Derby, and, in fact, it was only through fate that he was entered in the Preakness. Last February, when racetracks were soliciting nominations to the spring classics, the director of publicity for Churchill Downs, Bill Rudy, traveled to California to round up horses for the Derby. One morning at Santa Anita he asked trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who conditions Codex for the Tartan Stable, which of his nine 3-year-olds he wanted to nominate, at $100 apiece, for the Derby. Lukas took the list and checked off five nominees. Next to Codex' name Lukas wrote, "No." Then a few days later, when Keeneland Race Course's Ted Bassett came by soliciting nominations for the Blue Grass Stakes, Lukas wasn't at the barn. But his 22-year-old son, Jeff, was. Bassett had assumed that Lukas would nominate the same five for the Blue Grass as he had for the Derby. Jeff, however, added Codex to the Blue Grass list.
"My dad doesn't know how good Codex is," Jeff said. "If he won't pay the nomination fee, I will." When the Pimlico solicitor came by soon after, Jeff nominated Codex for the Preakness, too. And that is why the chestnut son of Arts and Letters, America's Horse of the Year in 1969, missed the plane to Louisville but made it to Baltimore.
Actually, there hadn't been much to recommend him as a 2-year-old. He had run seven times as a baby but had won only twice, earning $25,576. For one race, in fact, Lukas had shipped him to Pomona, a half-mile bullring run by the Los Angeles County Fair Association. He was fourth there, beaten by three-quarters of a length. It's a long way from Pomona to Pimlico on Preakness Day.
"He started to show signs of being good," said Lukas, who once coached high school basketball in LaCrosse, Wis., "but he never seemed to put it all together. He was like a big freshman athlete. When I was coaching, I told my assistants, 'Don't spend all your time with the 5'9" guy who's dribbling behind his back and running here and there. The 6'6" freshman who is staggering around and can't tie his shoes and can't hold the ball, spend it with him. If you wait three years, you can't find the little guy on Saturday night, and the 6'6" guy is throwing them in from everywhere."
Signs that Codex was more than just a useful sort came last winter at Santa Anita in his fourth start of 1980. Leaving the gate in an allowance race, he dragged his rider, Pat Valenzuela, to the lead and galloped home to win by more than five lengths, racing the mile and a sixteenth in 1:42, only two-fifths longer than it had taken Raise a Man, a Derby contender at the time, to win the San Felipe Handicap the day before.
Lukas was mildly ecstatic, because the race had taught him what he had wanted to know about Codex, had told him that he had found the key to the colt—the training pattern that best suited Codex' temperament and needs. "We discovered," says Lukas, "that he liked his works to be short, to be fairly slow, and that he liked them spaced further apart than the average horse. We also found out he likes to run his own races. You find these things through trial and error. This is what Codex wanted."
What he wanted, he continued to get. He worked an easy half mile in :48[1/5] on March 26, and four days later, at 25-1, he was clearly the ablest 3-year-old in California when he won the Santa Anita Derby by a neck from Rumbo, running the nine furlongs in a fiery 1:47[3/5].
Lukas is a 44-year-old former rodeo cowboy who became the nation's leading conditioner of quarter horses. "I had done about all I could do in the quarter-horse business," he says. "I'd go to Santa Anita and think, 'I'd like to try these guys.' " Three years ago, with seven horses, he made the move, joining the thoroughbred community in California. He arrived with a flourish. He trimmed his barn with white picket fencing, beds of flowers and freshly painted feed tubs, which he uses only for decoration; he feeds with other tubs. Some racetrackers regarded him as all flash, no pan, and his volubility and air of self-confidence stirred resentment. But Lukas quickly began demonstrating that he was learning the running game. Now in 1980 he is the leading U.S. trainer in money won.
Like every horseman, Lukas had an eye cocked for a Derby horse. And suddenly he discovered that he had one, yet didn't. "I felt an emptiness," he says. "I've never watched the Derby on TV without swelling up inside. And here I was going to watch it on TV again and with a genuine contender in my barn."
So Lukas set his sights on the Preakness, but he knew that the manager of Tartan Stable, John Nerud, who believes the classic 3-year-old races come too early in the year and whose say would be decisive, would probably be inclined to keep the colt in California. On May 5, the Monday following the Kentucky Derby, Nerud flew to California to have a look at the Tartan horses, especially Codex, whom he hadn't seen in more than two months. What he saw was a nicely balanced, beautiful horse, with powerful quarters, good bone and a striking coat.
The next day, after watching Codex gallop, the two men were driving toward San Diego in Lukas' Mercedes when Nerud said, "Your horse looks good. You'd like to run him in the Preakness, wouldn't you?"
"Yeah, John, I really would," said Lukas.
"I'll tell you what. If you can make the travel arrangements, go ahead."
So Lukas was off to Pimlico. The colt arrived on Tuesday night of Preakness week after a flight from L.A. to New York and a van ride to Baltimore, 12 hours in all. His racing and training schedule had been highly unorthodox, if not revolutionary. When Codex stepped onto the track on Saturday, he hadn't raced in 34 days, an extraordinarily long layoff before so demanding a race. Moreover, in that 34-day period Lukas had drilled him but three times, and only five furlongs at a pop. Surely that would not be enough to get him the mile and [3/16]ths of the Preakness. The colt wouldn't even get a chance to work hard and fast over the Pimlico surface before the race. On top of all that, he was racing 3,000 miles from home—in a different climate, in unfamiliar surroundings.
But Lukas was convinced that he had done right by the colt, that Codex had had sufficient work and would run his race. For the Preakness Nerud and Lukas replaced the 17-year-old Valenzuela, who is long on ability but short on experience, with Cordero, who has plenty of both. Coincidentally, earlier last week Cordero. Vasquez and Jorge Velasquez (who rode Colonel Moran) had been named by fellow rider Jose Amy as having taken part in conspiracies to fix the outcome of horse races in New York in the mid '70s. Amy's accusations came during testimony in the race-fixing trial of former jockey Con Errico in Brooklyn Federal Court. Amy also named eight other riders, and he admitted that he himself had stiffed horses for a fee.
As the gate opened for the Preakness, Knight Landing, breaking from the inside post, sprinted to the front and raced through an opening quarter in :23⅗ honest enough, and the half in :47[4/5]. Colonel Moran tracked him around the turn, squandering nothing, while Codex, a 5-2 shot, stalked them both. Genuine Risk lay sixth the first quarter, then moved to fourth around the turn and into the back-stretch. Nearing the far turn, she bob-bled for an instant but collected herself at once and dug in again.
And there the real running began. Sweeping into the turn, Codex and the Colonel pounced all over Knight Landing, who excused himself, and Cordero, sensing his colt was ready, let him roll. Codex left the Colonel, opening sudden daylight, but now the filly was taking aim as they raced midway through the turn. She swallowed the Colonel as she swept the bend. Then she set sail for Codex. He was running strongly on the lead, several feet out from the rail. And now the filly was coming to him. A roar went up. She charged outside of Codex, to his flank, and as she came to him, Cordero looked over and saw her. Codex drifted off the turn. The horses brushed. "He kind of got spooked from the crowd along the rail and all the screaming," Cordero said. "I was there before the filly came to me. I don't think I carried her out. I couldn't. She's very heavy." Cordero, lashing his whip, might have caught her once in the head. By the time they straightened out, her run had ended, and the colt sprinted clear to win the race in 1:54[1/5] only a tick off Canonero's track mark.
Bafflingly, the stewards posted no inquiry, but Vasquez claimed foul. "He [Cordero] came out, he bumped me," Vasquez said. "He hit my filly over the top of her head with his whip." Cordero denied this, claiming that the two horses had never made contact and that his whip never hit the filly. The stewards agreed with Cordero. They saw nothing on the film. Colwill said, to substantiate Vasquez' claim that Cordero hit the filly. Nor would he concede that Cordero carried her wide. "I feel they were both out there when they neared the turn. I'm not saying this horse didn't drift out some, but I think both were well out on the track. No, I don't think he [Cordero] did it deliberately. I don't think there was any contact," Colwill said.
The official chart caller for the Daily Racing Form, Bill Phillips, saw it differently. In his official chart of the race Phillips wrote, "Cordero looked back entering the stretch, angled extremely wide, intimidating and lightly brushing Genuine Risk...."
Between phone calls, Litzenberger agreed that the colt had intimidated the filly. "Intimidation. If you want to squeeze it out of me, go ahead. I think there was intimidation. But not enough to disqualify," he said.
So the order of finish stood. And there were hoots and howls from all over the land and from some of the 83,455 present. But not from a subdued LeRoy Jolley, who trains Genuine Risk. "They did bump or brush," he said. "Codex continued on well through the stretch; my filly didn't. But, as far as I'm concerned, what's done is done."
Partly lost sight of in the disputed race was the fact that Codex proved himself to be an exceptionally gifted young horse. He performed brilliantly. That he was ridden as if he were in a demolition derby doesn't diminish what he accomplished. The rider is another matter. A solid case can be made that he was riding the best racehorse in the Preakness. That he took unfair advantage of his main opponent served in the end only to deny his horse the chance to prove it unqualifiedly. And that was a shame.
Back at the barn, Jolley and Lukas met and shook hands. "I'm sorry," said Lukas. Jolley, full of professional admiration for Lukas' achievement, said, "You did a super, super job."
But the next morning, John Nazareth, Genuine Risk's assistant trainer, stood in the shedrow, seething. "The stewards are incompetent," he said. "She's got a bump on her nose. We gave her a little Bute [an anti-inflammation drug], iced the lump and rubbed it with alcohol. You make one bad call, O.K., but three? Impeding, hitting and contact?"
Standing a few feet away, Lukas told reporters, "All I can say is, if you study the films and a horse is hit on the head, the horse will jerk its head up. My horse has a bump on the head, too, but he got it in his stall. Unless you can see her jerk her head up, she didn't get hit.
"Anyway, when you're running in the Preakness," Lukas said, "you don't say, 'Excuse me, ma'am.' "