05/17/2011 1:39PM

1986 Preakness produced more than its share of stars


If there is a rule of thumb guiding the appreciation of the colts who compete in the Triple Crown each year it is this: Enjoy them while you can, because they won’t be around long.

The idea of the best of the classic colts going on to fruitful careers as 4-year-olds is as dead as the dodo. There are exceptions, thank goodness, including Curlin, Horse of the Year at both 3 and 4, and Skip Away, who could look back upon his 1996 Triple Crown experiences as a minor league prelude to his two-year reign as an older champion.

Big Drama, who threw a fit in the gate at the Preakness of 2009, reinvented himself the following year as a champion sprinter. Macho Again, from the class of 2008, went on to grind out reliable living with a few key wins. Rock Hard Ten, Eddington, and Imperialism, key players from the spring of 2004, had a few brief moments in the sun as they were allowed to age.

But of the 19 3-year-olds who ran in the Preaknesses of 2000 and 2001, exactly two of them – Captain Steve and Congaree – won graded stakes as 4-year-olds. And as much ink and air time that was spent on Thunder Gulch and Timber Country in 1995, they both disappeared as 3-year-olds, leaving only Mecke, fifth in both the Derby and the Preakness, to carry on through a career of 40 starts and victories at 4 in the Arlington Million, the Early Times and the Widener.

Perhaps it is unreasonable to expect great depth of downstream talent to emerge from Triple Crown fields. After all, these are horses of the moment, cooked up through a hard-trained spring and thrown into gladiatorial arenas with no real expectations beyond the Belmont. The most promising 3-year-olds of 2011 have proven especially frail – from champion Uncle Mo on down – leaving the game hoping against hope that the surviving bunch, led by Animal Kingdom and Nehro, will stick around for at least a little while.

All of which makes the Preakness field of 25 years ago shine even brighter. Happy silver anniversary to the Baltimore class of 1986 in the 111th running – all aces – which featured a tight and tasty field of seven that included four horses who proved talented 3-year-olds can grow up to make mom and dad proud. This field was the gift that kept on giving:

Groovy, the Norcliffe colt who set the pace in the Preakness and faded badly, just as he did in the Derby, never raced two turns again, and for good reason. He went on to be hailed as one of the fastest horses of his era, voted champion sprinter of 1987 when he won 6 of 7 starts.

Broad Brush, a son of Ack Ack, already was the winner of the ’86 Wood Memorial and Jim Beam before finishing third in the Derby and the Preakness. He was subject to mood swings as a 3-year-old but matured into a monster the following season when he won the Santa Anita Handicap, the Suburban, the Campbell, and the Trenton. Sounds like something Gun Bow might have done, only he didn’t.

Ferdinand, the fairytale ‘86 Derby winner for Bill Shoemaker and Charlie Whittingham, finished second in the Preakness and then third in the Belmont Stakes. He then flowered at 4 to win the Hollywood Gold Cup, Goodwood, and Breeders’ Cup Classic, a record substantial enough to make him the 1987 Horse of the Year.

Then there was Snow Chief, the little black colt from California who was favored in the ‘86 Derby based on his wins in the Santa Anita and Florida Derbies. But he flopped in Louisville and finished 11th to Ferdinand.

“I couldn’t figure out why he run that bad,” Mel Stute said. “I had a friend with me back there, a neurosurgeon, and when I got to the barn the next morning the groom wasn’t up yet. So I had the doctor hold him while I washed off his legs.

“Snow Chief had this thing about biting at your hands,” Stute went on. “ ’These hands are worth a million dollars,’ the doc said. ‘And you’ve got me holding this horse.’ About then, out of nowhere, come Charlie Whittingham. He took Snow Chief from the doctor and snatched him a couple times. Then he said, ‘Mel, don’t worry about that race. I had a filly on Friday who was 2-to-5 and finished a bad fourth” – Charlie was talking about Hidden Light in the Kentucky Oaks – “If you want to go to the Preakness, you should go.”

Of course, Stute was heading that way anyway, but Whittingham’s nudge didn’t hurt. Two weeks later in the Preakness, Snow Chief tracked Groovy’s pace, then drew off to beat Ferdinand by four lengths. Just like that, the bad taste in Mel Stute’s mouth disappeared.

“After the Preakness I was standing in line to cash my exacta tickets and Charlie saw me,” Stute said. “He says, ‘I must be the world’s dumbest s.o.b to talk you into coming here.’ ”

Not sure who got the last laugh in that mix, but one thing‘s for sure – as a key race, the quality of the ‘86 Preakness held up in the long haul. Snow Chief and Ferdinand ran against each other nine times over three seasons. Broad Brush intersected with those two on five occasions. Besides their 1-2-3 finish in the Preakness, they provided grand entertainment in the 1987 Strub Stakes, in which Snow Chief beat Ferdinand a nose, and in the ‘87 Santa Anita Handicap, when Ferdinand lost by another dirty nose, this one belonging to Broad Brush. In all, the three colts made 80 starts and won 35 races, banking $9.8 million.

“You know Snow Chief still holds the track record at Oaklawn for a mile and one-eighth after all these years,” Stute said, referring to his colt’s win in 1987 Oaklawn Handicap.

“He just did everything right,” Stute added. “He even picked the right time to die.”

That was May 15, 2010, the day the Preakness was run.