The Preakness, as a lot of horseplayers are aware, is now 107 years old. Less well known is the fact that the Withers Stakes is also a ripe old 107. The Withers, a mile race for 3-year-olds, generally has been overlooked for all those years because it's run just a week before the Preakness. Rarely will a colt compete in the Withers and then ship to Pimlico for the middle leg of the Triple Crown. The Withers is "too close" to the Preakness for most horses, and so until last Saturday afternoon the only horse in memory to successfully use the Withers as a stepping-stone to victory in the Preakness was Native Dancer, in 1953. Aloma's Ruler can now be added.
On May 8, Aloma's Ruler fought Spanish Drums down the length of the Aqueduct stretch and won the Withers by a desperate neck in a race that should have sapped the winner's strength and knocked him out of even starting in the Preakness. But run he did, holding off Linkage, the 1-2 favorite, to win the 1 [3/16]-mile classic by half a length. It was the third race in 17 days for this hardy colt—he had also finished second in an allowance race at Pimlico on April 29—and the victory made him one of the favorites for the June 5 Belmont Stakes.
Aloma's Ruler was anything but the favorite in the Withers, in which he went off at 7-1, and he was listed at nearly the same odds in the Preakness. Why? Simple: He was the forgotten horse of the winter. A wrenched left front ankle had sidelined the Florida-bred colt for three months shortly after his impressive triumph in the Bahamas Stakes at Hialeah on Jan. 27. At the time of his injury, Aloma's Ruler stood near the head of the 3-year-old class, but a horse that doesn't run in February or March and doesn't reappear at the track until the last days of April is rarely considered a classic contender. Out of sight, out of mind.
But with his Preakness win, Aloma's Ruler is very much back in view. He has an excellent record—six wins in eight starts, plus two second-place finishes—and will make the mile-and-a-half Belmont an even more interesting race, because nobody has the vaguest idea how far the colt can run. One thing's for sure, though: Aloma's Ruler proved in the Preakness that he's a tough dude.
Seven horses faced the starter at Pimlico, with Aloma's Ruler in the outside post position. When the gate opened, Aloma's Ruler veered sharply to his right, as if he were looking for a box seat. But within a few jumps he was straightened out and was gunned into the lead by 16-year-old jockey Jack Kaenel, and the colt ran bravely on that lead. No other horse really challenged him, though he was moving along rather sedately. "A half mile in 48," said Kaenel, who had artfully backed the pace up. "I never thought I could get away with that." Aloma's Ruler went through six furlongs in 1:12 and was 1½ lengths in front entering the stretch. He then held off Linkage, with 50-year-old Bill Shoemaker aboard, in the long drive through the lane. The winner's time of 1:55[2/5] wasn't spectacular, but Linkage wasn't about to catch Aloma's Ruler. Cut Away, the third-place finisher, was 7¼ lengths back.
This year's Preakness didn't have much box office dynamite, mainly because the Kentucky Derby winner, Gato del Sol, skipped the race to await the Belmont. It was the first time a Derby winner had failed to run in the Preakness since 1959. Actually, of the 19 Derby starters, only four ran in the Preakness, and they finished in the last four places: Bold Style, fourth; Laser Light, fifth; Reinvested, sixth; Water Bank, seventh.
One other Derby horse was supposed to start at Pimlico—the quick filly, Cupecoy's Joy, who had run in front for a mile of the Derby but finished 10th. She had been entered in the Preakness, at a cost of $2,500, but her co-owner, Robert Perez, apparently miffed because his request for 30 reserved seats wasn't acted upon quickly enough, scratched the filly, which probably had a profound effect on how this Preakness was run.
With the speedy Cupecoy's Joy out of the race, the strategy for Aloma's Ruler was changed. He could now seize the lead and try to control the race. John (Butch) Lenzini Jr., the colt's 35-year-old trainer, gave jockey Kaenel specific instructions. "Break good," Lenzini said, "and find the wood [rail]." After the zigzag start, Kaenel followed that directive perfectly.
Around the time of the 1981 Preakness, Kaenel was the toast of Maryland racing. He was tied for leading rider at Pimlico, with 37 winners in 170 mounts, for an admirable winning percentage of .22. Because Kaenel wore a cowboy hat wherever he went, he was known as Cowboy Jack. But he was also a kid in trouble. On May 6, 1981, Betty Cuniberti of the now defunct Washington Star reported that Kaenel was only 15 years old, not 16, the legal age for a jockey to get a license. His records had been altered to make him eligible. Kaenel admitted the deception, and the stewards at Pimlico suspended him. He returned to racing at the Timonium meeting and rode three winners on his first day back, July 27, 1981, his 16th birthday.
Until the Withers, Kaenel had never been on Aloma's Ruler, and he got that ride only because the colt's regular jockey, Angel Cordero Jr., was committed to ride Shimatoree, the Withers favorite. Lenzini and Aloma's Ruler's owner, Nathan Scherr, a Baltimore contractor, felt Kaenel's performance in the Withers was good enough to let him ride the horse in Maryland's biggest race.
But Kaenel—who would become the youngest jockey to ride in the Preakness, much less win it—almost blew his big chance when, four days before the race, he was involved in an auto accident on his way to the racetrack. Once again, however, the kid's luck held. "Usually when I get in my car," Kaenel said, "I'm wearing my cowboy hat. For some reason I put on my riding helmet that day. I was just lucky, no other word for it. The car was totaled, but the helmet saved me." When Kaenel went to the first-aid station at Pimlico, he was treated for a slight concussion and allowed to walk around, though he had to cancel his mounts for the day. His agent, Bill Vuotto, was fined $50 for "using abusive language and being disrespectful to the nurse and attending physician."
Although he cost his owner a hefty $95,680, Aloma's Ruler now looks like a bargain basement buy because the Preakness win makes the colt by Iron Ruler from Aloma worth at least $2 million. In 1981 Scherr had originally decided to spend $50,000 to buy two horses at a sale of 2-year-olds in training at Hialeah. Lenzini looked at many horses and, he says, "fell in love with Aloma's Ruler. I thought I might be able to get the colt for $50,000—maybe $60,000 tops." Then Scherr saw Aloma's Ruler, and he, too, fell in love. "When the bidding got to $60,000," Scherr says, "Butch turned and started to walk away. I said, 'Butch, wait a minute here.' I got the horse for $92,000. The tax on the sale cost me another $3,680. Heck, the tax was more than I've paid for some horses."
Scherr, a former football and lacrosse player at Cornell, has had a Preakness horse before. In 1978 he started a horse named Dax S. in the race that starred Affirmed and Alydar. Dax S. was beaten by 24 lengths and later claimed for $16,500.
"I guess Dax S. just didn't belong," Scherr says. "But Aloma's Ruler belonged in the Preakness, didn't he?"