Behind the wooden fence that runs alongside the stakes barn at
Pimlico Race Course, as small knots of Preakness revelers
strolled past sipping bubbly last Saturday night, a golden
chestnut with a white blaze on his face was burying his nose in a
deep green rug of grass and tearing voraciously at it. The colt,
Red Bullet, lifted his head now and again to listen as his
51-year-old groom, Curly Snell, regaled visitors with Red
Bullet's exploits and promised them that the best was yet to
Not incidentally, fastened to that white fence, at intervals,
were 11 yellow plaques, each bearing the name of a Triple Crown
winner--from the first, Sir Barton (1919), through the last,
Affirmed (1978). Since his dominating Kentucky Derby victory on
May 6, Fusaichi Pegasus had been hailed as a worthy candidate to
become the 12th winner of the series. But no, another plaque
would not be screwed to the fence this year. It was 7:40 p.m.,
and Red Bullet had just taken care of that. About two hours
earlier, on a mud-slick racetrack soaked by two days of cold
rains, the Bullet won the Preakness by nearly four widening
lengths and left seven other starters, including Pegasus,
floating like scraps of paper in his wake. Pegasus persevered on
class alone to finish second. All that was left to hope for now
was the prospect of an epic rivalry.
"He's my boy!" crowed Snell as the Bullet stopped to listen. "He
hasn't let me down yet. Now he'll win the Belmont. Bring Pegasus
on again at Belmont Park. It'll be like Ali and Frazier. They
each won one and then had the showdown. That's what the Belmont
will be. The Thrilla in Manila!"
Snell looked his colt up and down and then added, "And this is
Little in sports is more uncertain than the outcome of a horse
race, and virtually nothing bedevils handicappers more than the
prospect of a muddy racing surface and the unpredictable effects
it will have on 1,000-pound animals racing at speeds up to 40
mph. In the two weeks between the Derby and the Preakness, Neil
Drysdale, the trainer of Pegasus, had done everything imaginable
to give his horse a chance to make history. Drysdale had kept him
in Kentucky for 10 days, in the quieter precincts of Churchill
Downs, and when he and the colt finally arrived in Baltimore on
May 17, three days before the race, Drysdale stabled the bay in a
cinder-block shed far from the traditional Preakness barn and the
hurly-burly of its gathering media hordes. "I'm just trying to do
what is best for the horse," Drysdale said.
Only the weather was out of his control. Yet even when it became
clear that the surface would be a mud pie on Saturday, Drysdale's
confidence didn't waver. After all, Pegasus was a son of Mr.
Prospector and "Mr. Prospectors do well on off tracks," he noted.
Also, the colt had trained well in the mud and had won the April
15 Wood Memorial in commanding style on a soupy Aqueduct oval. If
a handicapper questioned whether the colt could summon yet
another brilliant performance--a third in only five weeks--the
prevailing attitude among rival horsemen was that it would take
an act of Zeus to clip the wings of Pegasus. "The only way he can
lose is if they load him in the gate backward," quipped Bob
Baffert, the trainer of Captain Steve.
In the midst of this resignation, Joe Orseno issued the most
stinging of dissents. Orseno, the trainer of Red Bullet, was not
at Pimlico to run for second money, and he was among those who
voiced loud doubts that the favorite could duplicate his Derby
effort. "To come back in two weeks and repeat that, it's going
to be tough," Orseno said three days before the race.
Yet Orseno appeared to be whistling in the dark in his quest to
win the Preakness. He had never run Red Bullet as a 2-year-old,
which raised questions about the horse's seasoning. What's more,
though Red Bullet won his first three races this winter,
including the March 19 Gotham at Aqueduct, Fusaichi Pegasus had
smoked him like a salmon at the Wood, blowing past him in the
final eighth of a mile to beat him by more than four lengths. The
result left suspicions about Red Bullet's ability to win around
two turns. Orseno, however, argued that his jockey, Alex Solis,
had ridden him too close to the burners of a hot early pace in
the Wood, and that by the time Pegasus had ranged alongside him,
the Bullet was spent.
"I was out of horse at the eighth pole," Orseno said last week.
"He was staggering to the wire. I know with the right kind of
ride, we have to be four or five lengths better. I think it will
What Orseno did next was almost unprecedented in modern Triple
Crown racing. The Wood had exhausted his horse, Orseno said, so
he and the colt's owner, Frank Stronach, decided to pass up the
Derby and target the Preakness instead. Not since Deputed
Testamony in 1983 had a horse that skipped the first leg of the
Triple Crown won the second. "Would anybody have skipped the
Derby with a horse that has this kind of talent?" Orseno asked.
Only Drysdale comes immediately to mind, but this was the year he
had a horse for history. Then, inside 100 yards, he didn't.
It ended as quickly as a gasp from the startled crowd of 98,304.
Around the final turn, jockey Kent Desormeaux on Pegasus and
Jerry Bailey on the Bullet were running in tandem when Hal's
Hope, one of the pacesetters, started tiring and backing up.
Desormeaux steered Pegasus outside Hal's Hope, and Bailey took
Red Bullet inside. Desormeaux glanced over and saw the Bullet
half a length in front of him, just where he said he wanted to
be: "I had what I thought was the second-best horse as a target."
What Desormeaux did not know was that--whether his colt was
tailing off in form or unable to handle the mud, or both--he was
on the second-best horse this day. As they rolled into the
straight, the two jockeys hit the gas. Coming off the bit in the
drive, Pegasus lost his fluent action as he tried to keep his
balance. "We started slippin' and slidin'," Desormeaux said. "It
was greasy out there."
Red Bullet moved on surer feet, surging forward in a burst and
opening a length on Pegasus--"He tried to match strides with him,
but he couldn't do it," said Desormeaux--then two lengths as they
reached the eighth pole. By then the race was over. Red Bullet
ran hard and true to the wire. Pegasus, tiring, struggled to beat
a plodding closer named Impeachment by a head. This was a
Preakness in which Fusaichi Pegasus was supposed to announce
himself as the rightful heir to the line that traces from Sir
Barton to Affirmed. All it did was bury in the mud the widespread
hope that such a champion had at last been found. And raised
doubts anew that one ever will.