05/13/2014 12:43PM

Hovdey: Missing second base en route to a Triple


Since 1933, the Preakness Stakes has been run without variation as the second jewel in the American Triple Crown. During that period, nine winners of the Kentucky Derby failed when asked to win the Preakness as well but then came right back to take the Belmont Stakes in New York, as if Maryland were nothing but a bad dream.

These nine won the Parenthetical Crown, the Triple with the Hole in the Middle, roundly greeted in the Belmont Park winner’s circle with polite applause and a melancholy sigh that said, “Where were you when we needed you back on Old Hilltop?”

Still, if they were good enough to win the first and third jewels of the Triple Crown, they had to be something special. Five were champions, and four ended up in the Hall of Fame. But the Preakness escaped them, for all the bitter reasons good horses lose when they figure to win.

The irony of an eight-length Derby winner named Johnstown sinking helplessly in the Pimlico mud at the 1939 Preakness – 50 years after a flood wiped the Pennsylvania town of the same name off the map – was almost too tasteless to mention. More than 2,200 people were killed at Johnstown, while backers of the horse merely went down at 45 cents on the dollar. Anyway, Johnstown came back to win the Belmont Stakes with ease.

In 1942, Shut Out was rated second-best in his own Greentree Stable to the flamboyant Devil Diver. It was Shut Out, though, who saved the day for the entry in the Derby, beating Alsab by 2 1/4 lengths in 2:04 2/5, a time so slow that critics decided that the winner was the best of a bad lot (there will be a brief pause for fans of California Chrome’s Derby win to appreciate echoes of the familiar).

One week later at Pimlico, Alsab won a tight Preakness finish in stakes-record time, while Shut Out finished fifth in the cluster at the end, about four lengths back. In the subsequent Belmont, it was Shut Out’s turn again, with Alsab two lengths second.

In 1950, Middleground was good enough to beat Hill Prince in the Derby and the Belmont, but Hill Prince won the Preakness by five. How good was Hill Prince? Good enough to beat champion older horse Noor in the Jockey Club Gold Cup that October and earn Horse of the Year honors.

In 1956, the stretch-running Needles was a perfect fit for the Derby and the Belmont Stakes, but his late kick came up 1 1/4 lengths short of catching the quick Fabius and Bill Hartack in the Preakness.

In 1963, Chateaugay was lucky in the Kentucky Derby, and the favored Candy Spots was not. With a clean run in the Preakness, the favored Candy Spots prevailed, with Chateaugay second. Favored again in the Belmont, Candy Spots raced out of his comfort zone on a slow pace and banked wide into the stretch, allowing Braulio Baeza and Chateaugay an unfettered run along the rail to victory.

In 1972, Derby winner Riva Ridge ran into the same Pimlico mud that troubled Johnstown in 1939. But while Challedon won the 1939 Preakness and went on to be Horse of the Year, the mud-loving, Maryland-bred beneficiary of 1972, Bee Bee Bee, never won another race of consequence. Riva Ridge won a dry Belmont by seven.

The 1976 Derby was topped by two fine colts, with Bold Forbes playing a cruising Swaps to the frustrated Honest Pleasure’s version of Nashua. In the Preakness, Baeza and Honest Pleasure figured to challenge Bold Forbes and Angel Cordero much earlier, and they did not disappoint.

“Cordero and Baeza shot out of the gate like a couple of bug boys riding their first mounts at River Downs,” reported William Leggett in Sports Illustrated.

The result was a track-record 1:09 flat for the first six furlongs, after which both colts suffering a predictable meltdown. Honest Pleasure got a two-month vacation, while Bold Forbes went on to take the Belmont over what was left of the division.

The 1984 Triple Crown belonged to the enigmatic Swale, a dark colt of occasional brilliance who was at his inconsistent best for the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes. His seventh-place finish in the Preakness was the worst by an odds-on favorite in the 109-year history of the race. Sadly, a week after winning the Belmont by four, Swale dropped dead at his barn from cardiac arrest.

The most recent case of a missing Preakness occurred in 1995, when D. Wayne Lukas stablemates Thunder Gulch and Timber Country tag-teamed the first two legs of the Crown. Timber Country fell ill and missed the Belmont, leaving the field to Thunder Gulch, who won by two. His jockey, Gary Stevens, considers it a Triple Crown that got away.

“I had about 85 percent of the horse I had in the Preakness that I had in the Derby,” Stevens said. “And still he gets beat by just three-quarters of a length. If he’d have had three weeks between the Derby and the Preakness instead of two, there’s no doubt in my mind I would have won the Triple Crown with Thunder Gulch. But that’s what makes the Triple Crown so difficult.”

We’re about to find out again.