As the 12-horse field in the Preakness Stakes straightened out on the backstretch of Pimlico Race Course last Saturday afternoon in Baltimore, jockey Mike Smith, riding the favored Prairie Bayou, found himself sitting comfortably near the back of the pack, right behind Union City and jockey Pat Valenzuela. Smith knew that Prairie Bayou, a chestnut gelding, would give his usual honest effort. And he was determined to keep Bayou out of the traffic that had forced him to run wide two weeks earlier at Churchill Downs, where his late charge fell 2½ lengths short of the victorious Sea Hero.
Suddenly, though, something went wrong. Valenzuela began trying to pull up Union City, which meant that Smith quickly had to find someplace to take Prairie Bayou to avoid a collision with Union City. It was the diciest moment in the race, a crisis that went unnoticed by almost everyone in the crowd of 85,495.
In their box seats Bayou's owner, John Ed Anthony, and trainer, Tom Bohannan, weren't sure what was happening. Having won last year's Preakness with Pine Bluff, they were hoping to become the first owner-trainer team to win the Preakness in consecutive years since Calumet Farm and trainer Jimmy Jones did it with Faultless in 1947 and Citation in '48. The Bayou camp was also facing an even more forbidding historical challenge: No gelding had won the Preakness since Holiday, in 1914.
A son of the little-known sire Little Missouri out of the undistinguished mare Whiffling, Bayou had a future that seemed so modest, Anthony didn't object when his advisers at Loblolly Stables recommended that the colt be gelded. "He was heavy in the shoulder and the neck," said Anthony. "We thought gelding him would help take the weight off his front end."
Bohannan initially consigned Bayou to his second string, running him at Churchill Downs in the fall and Aqueduct in the winter. But he began to pay more attention to the horse after he won two consecutive stakes races at Aqueduct. Then Bayou won against tougher competition, in the Jim Beam Stakes at Turfway Park on March 27. That performance earned Bayou a shot at the Blue Grass Slakes at Keeneland two weeks later. His win in the Blue Grass made him the favorite for the Kentucky Derby, in which his circuitous run may have cost him the race. "We figured he ran about a 16th of a mile farther than anybody else," said Bohannan, who was confident that Bayou would redeem himself at Pimlico.
The night before the Preakness, a couple of hours after he and Loblolly Stable had won Pimlico's Black-Eyed Susan Stakes for 3-year-old fillies with Aztec Hill, Bohannan and Mack Miller, the 71-year-old Hall of Famer who trains Sea Hero, bumped into each other in the lobby of the Cross Keys Inn in Baltimore. Bohannan was in an elevator, and Miller was standing by its door, waiting to go to dinner. "Congratulations, Tom," Miller said. "Thanks, Mr. Miller," said Bohannan, "but I'm just getting warmed up." When the elevator door closed on Bohannan, Miller chuckled and said, "That crazy s.o.b. must have been drinking."
Then, less than 24 hours later, Bohannan was struggling to see what was happening with Prairie Bayou on the back-stretch of the Preakness. Jockeys live in dread of a situation like the one Smith faced when Union City took his bad step. Somehow, Bayou avoided colliding with Valenzuela's colt, "I was lucky to get by him," Smith said later. "And Pat was great. When he knew what was happening with Union City, he yelled, 'Breakdown! Breakdown!' That helped me and the other riders a lot."
Saving ground by staying near the rail, Smith and Bayou took aim on the leaders and by the middle of the stretch had moved from eighth to second, behind Cherokee Run. Over the last furlong the race became a duel between Bayou and Cherokee Run, who had won the Derby Trial but had skipped the Derby. Cherokee Run, ridden by Pat Day, stayed on Bayou's flank all the way to the wire, where he was beaten only half a length. El Bakan finished third and Personal Hope fourth. Next came Sea Hero, whose only excuse was that he didn't find the track to his liking. The winning time was a slow 1:56[3/5] for the mile and [3/16].
While attention was being focused on Prairie Bayou, Union City was standing on the backstretch, where vets had put a temporary cast on his broken right ankle. Soon after he was loaded onto an equine ambulance, it was determined that the injury was irreparable, and he was destroyed. "We never took him off the ambulance," said D. Wayne Lukas, his shaken trainer. Back at the barn Lukas blew up when a reporter questioned the wisdom of running Union City in the Preakness, even though he had finished 15th at the Kentucky Derby. Thinking the colt needed a rest more than conditioning, Lukas hadn't given Union City a single serious workout in the two weeks between the Derby and the Preakness. "Nobody is exempt from something like this," Lukas said of his colt's breaking down. "It's happened to Mack Miller, it's happened to Charlie Whittingham, it's happened to everybody."
The death of Union City put more of a damper on the day than the fact that racing fans once again were denied the chance for a Triple Crown winner (the most recent of the 11 Triple Crown champions was Affirmed, in 1978). However, the consolation prize was that the Belmont Stakes on June 5 in New York will amount, to a rubber match between Prairie Bayou and Sea Hero.
At Bohannan's postrace interview, a reporter asked him to wax eloquent about his winning colt. The reporter couldn't be blamed for his mistake—even the program had listed the gelding as a coll. "I wish Prairie Bayou were a colt," said Bohannan. "He's a very, very nice horse. And so far he's proven to be the most honest 3-year-old of them all."