05/18/2017 12:10PM

Hovdey: A fortnight to get it right


The winner of the Preakness Stakes 100 years ago was Kalitan. Don’t fret if the name is not familiar. It wasn’t in 1917 either, at least not before he won the Preakness.

His owner was Edward Riley Bradley, bookmaker, speculator, owner of racetracks and casinos. Later on, as he became famous in Thoroughbred circles, he went by Col. E.R. Bradley, waving the honorific bestowed upon him by the governor of Kentucky, not the U.S. military. (For context, please refer to the list of Kentucky colonels that includes Jerry Lewis, Hunter S. Thompson, Harlan Sanders, Whoopi Goldberg, Jeff Gordon, Johnny Depp, and Billy Ray Cyrus.)

“Colonel” Bradley would go on to win the Kentucky Derby four times, the Belmont Stakes twice, and two more runnings of the Preakness. Along the way, he made the cover of Time Magazine, with his most quotable quote – “I’d gamble on anything” – beneath his name.

Bradley always gave his horses names that began with the letter “B” – Burgoo King, Bubbling Over, Bimelech, Blue Larkspur. Kalitan slipped through because Bradley bought him already named from his California breeders, Melville Lawrence and Harry Comstock, whose Oakwood Stock Farm was located just outside Sacramento. They also built a casino on the north shore of Lake Tahoe.

Kalitan apparently was named for a character in the novel “Told in the Hills,” by Marah Ellis Ryan, set in Montana and published in 1890. The character is a “half-breed,” in the grim parlance of the day, the son of a British father and a Native American mother. Kalitan is an enigmatic fellow, moving slyly between the two cultures, whose speed afoot proved valuable as a mail carrier. According to the novel, in the Chinook language, “kalitan” is synonymous with “arrow.”

Bradley’s Kalitan had little trouble beating the colt Al M. Dick and the filly Fruit Code in the 1917 Preakness, run on May 12, which was significant. The Kentucky Derby was run on the same afternoon, with post time 10 minutes after the Preakness.

That’s a lot to ask in terms of a turnaround, let alone the 500 miles between Baltimore and Louisville. The conflict eventually was adjusted, and for the last 86 years, the procession from Derby to Preakness to Belmont Stakes has been locked in place. Through most of the 1930s and 1940s, the gap between the first two was only a week. Then, in the early 1950s, there was a stretch with three weeks. Only since 1956 has there been consistently two weeks between the Derby and Preakness.

One year ago, Keith Desormeaux had a brief conversation with himself over what to do with Derby runner-up Exaggerator during those two weeks. He was pretty much convinced he ran the best horse at Churchill Downs, where Exaggerator had to pause when a hole closed just as he began his run at the seven-sixteenths pole. The colt picked it up again, shaved the turn, then angled wide to go after the favored Nyquist with a charge that fell 1 1/4 lengths short.

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Second-place finishers in the Kentucky Derby had not provided a good Preakness betting angle for nearly a quarter of a century. Lookin At Lee, second to Always Dreaming in Louisville, will try to become only the fifth Derby runner-up to win in Baltimore in the past 63 years. Intent on his horse in the wake of his Derby effort, Desormeaux was blissfully unaware that history was not on his side.

“It wasn’t that complicated,” Desormeaux said this week, far from the action at Pimlico. “We just kept to the same routine that had already worked for us.”

Of course, the routine now was being played out in a fishbowl.

“The thought of giving him a light breeze entered my mind,” Desormeaux said. “And I was asked about it often enough. I know a lot of trainers will breeze a horse seven or eight days after a race, but that has never, ever been my way. In fact, I’ll usually wait two weeks to work a horse after a race, and two weeks from the Saturday of the Derby was the Preakness.

“So, I think I trained him a lot lighter than most people expected,” the trainer added. “I remember I walked him on the Monday before the Preakness – the day after we got to Pimlico – and then walked him again on Thursday, the day we schooled him.”

To that point, Exaggerator had lost all four of his encounters with Nyquist. Desormeaux was confident there would not be a fifth loss, at least not at Pimlico.

“People asked me why I thought he could win,” the trainer said. “The first thing that always came to mind was that he had such a quick recovery time. A few days after the Derby, he was no worse the wear. The better answer should have been, ‘Did you see the Derby?’ ”

Ridden by Kent Desormeaux, the trainer’s Hall of Fame brother, Exaggerator won the Preakness by 3 1/2 lengths to give Keith Desormeaux his first large helping of the Triple Crown experience after 25 years in the trenches. If he is like most horsemen, he must be hungry for more. At this year’s Derby, he saddled Rebel Stakes runner-up Sonneteer, still a maiden, to finish 16th at nearly 40-1.

“I’m certainly going to work hard to get back to those races,” Desormeaux said. “But there has been no emotional letdown or disappointment from not being at the Preakness again. I mean, winning the race was the culmination of a lifetime of work. I have so much appreciation for that whole experience, I’m still in a gratification mode – the afterglow.”

As a co-owner of Exaggerator, Desormeaux also gets to share with his partners the replica of the fabled Woodlawn vase awarded to the Preakness winner. As the winning trainer, he received a Longines watch.

“As soon as I have a house with a trophy case worthy of the Woodlawn, I’ll be making a call,” Desormeaux said.

And the watch?

“No, I’m not wearing it,” he said. “But it’s in a safe place.”