Half an hour before Saturday's 113th running of the Preakness Stakes, the wind rose, the temperature dropped and rain-bloated clouds moved over Pimlico Race Course and its already soggy track. Race fans peered up at the heavens, but none so anxiously as Louie Roussel III, trainer of Risen Star. All week long he had fretted about whether to run his colt. First he said he was "99 percent certain" he would not; then he said he probably would—unless there was more rain. At four o'clock Saturday afternoon he decided Risen Star would go—but, just in case it rained, Roussel filled out a scratch card and marked it 4:45 p.m., the last possible moment he could pull his horse out.
The rain never came; Roussel kept the card in his pocket, and at 5:36 p.m. Risen Star led seven colts and one filly across the finish line. "All I can say is, 'Praise the Lord,' " said Roussel in the winner's circle. "God smiled on Risen Star and he won his race."
The victory was worth a celestial $413,700 to Risen Star, a huge, dark bay son of Secretariat, and the first of that great horse's offspring to win a Triple Crown race. It also completed the Preakness's first grandsire-sire-colt triple: Bold Ruler, who sired Secretariat, won it in 1957; Secretariat won in 1973.
This year's race featured a rematch between the first two finishers in the Kentucky Derby, the filly Winning Colors, trained by D. Wayne Lukas, and Forty Niner, a Woody Stephens colt. All week the Wayne and Woody Show took center stage as every gibe and taunt between the rival trainers was gleefully reported in the papers and on TV.
"He [Lukas] is a genius, now that he's won the Derby," Stephens smirked.
"What Woody's got to understand." said Lukas, "is when you court the girl, the hardest part is to catch her."
"We're gonna send her back to the farm," said Stephens.
But this was more than badinage. Stephens appeared determined to prevent Lukas's filly from running away on the lead, as she had in her wire-to-wire Derby win; Stephens promised to give early chase, even if it meant using up his horse. "My horse may finish last," said Woody, "but the filly will finish next to last." If the Wayne and Woody horses burned each other up, it would open the gate for one of the other contenders.
But what drove the handicappers crazy was the condition of the track after five days of on-and-off rain. Winning Colors had never even worked on an off track. "The horse that will benefit the most from the situation." said Lukas, "is without a doubt Forty Niner. He's won in the mud, he's got a pedigree for the mud. If he doesn't win today, I think Woody should just sit down and go home, because he's got all the edge."
But by race time, the track had dried out somewhat and was officially labeled "good." When the gate opened, Forty Niner, with Pat Day aboard, sped to the lead, with Winning Colors and jockey Gary Stevens hanging just off his right flank. Forty Niner raced very wide around the clubhouse turn a head in front of the filly, who hung tough through a series of bumpings as the two dueled roughly up the backstretch. Eddie Delahoussaye on Risen Star was third, saving ground and biding his time. At the [5/16] pole Risen Star made a move inside and suddenly had the lead. Down the stretch a spent Forty Niner faded badly to finish seventh. Brian's Time rallied past Winning Colors to get second place, 1¼ lengths behind Risen Star, who won in a slow 1:56[1/5].
Just across from the finish line, Vicky Bayley, Roussel's fiancèe, jumped into the winning trainer's arms. She hadn't seen the race ("I was praying; I couldn't look"), but she had listened when, before the start, Roussel "the Indecisive" turned to her and said with authority. "He's going to run the race of his life."
Roussel, 42, is not your everyday trainer. He's the major shareholder in the Fair Grounds track in New Orleans, where his father. Louis J. Roussel Jr., is president. He's engaged to be married to the administrative assistant of the track. He's a lawyer, a former bank president, a devout Roman Catholic—and more than a little superstitious.
Although he remembered to bring his "lucky bean" and his rosary beads to Pimlico on Saturday, Roussel was horrified when he realized he had left his religious medals in his hotel room. He quickly dispatched his future father-in-law, Perry Bayley, back to fetch them.
It was a lucky day for Roussel when he bought Risen Star for $300,000 at a 2-year-olds-in-training sale in Florida last year. He then offered half a share in him to his flamboyant friend Ron Lamarque, who owns a car dealership and a pretty fair singing voice, which he unleashed in the winner's circle with his nationally televised rendition of 'Way Down Yonder in New Orleans.
A few months ago, Roussel was asked to make a donation to the Little Sisters of the Poor in New Orleans; he said he would give part of Risen Star's purses if the nuns would pray for the horse (whose name stands for "the risen Christ and the Star of Bethlehem"). No one is claiming that the colt's success is the result of prayer power, but Risen Star has now won seven of 10 races. "He's the best 3-year-old in America," Roussel said after the Preakness.
But much of what was said after that race was less exultant. A subdued Lukas said, "He [Stephens] made a commitment, I think, to beat the filly instead of probably trying to win the race. And that's what happened. Given the pace and what Woody tried to do, carrying us wide in the turns, we're very proud of her." Winning Colors' jockey was more pointed. "People were saying it was a match race all week long, but we had eight other horses in the race," said Stevens. "Jealousy is a powerful thing, and it cost that man [Stephens] a lot more than it cost us."
Back at the barns, an unperturbed Stephens answered questions. Did he think the filly would have won if Forty Niner hadn't gone with her? "Sure," Woody replied. "Now I know that and now Lukas knows. She's a good filly—but I had to find that out."
On June 11 the racing world will find out if the 1½-mile Belmont Stakes will provide the next episode of the Wayne and Woody Show. But Roussel, for one, feels that the Belmont is a race in which Risen Star will really excel. If he's right, and his colt wins, he will pocket the $1 million bonus awarded to the horse who earns the most points in all three Triple Crown events. The Little Sisters of the Poor are likely to send up a few extra prayers between now and then.