05/16/2013 12:29PM

Jay Hovdey: Preakness Stakes a classic by any name

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Barbara D. Livingston
Govenor Charlie is going into the Preakness with only three starts behind him.

The horse race called the Preakness Stakes has been run 137 times, dating back to 1873, only it’s tough to take the first couple dozen versions very seriously.

In half of those 19th-century runnings there were Preakness fields of four or fewer. Six of the first 10 winners were owned by either Pierre Lorillard or his younger brother George. Most of the time the race was run at a mile and a half, and then suddenly, after a three-year absence, it returned in 1889 at a mile and one-sixteenth. By then it was being run in New York, where it would remain until its permanent return to Maryland (My Maryland) in 1909 and be run at one mile, then later at a mile and one-eighth.

In 1908 the Preakness was run four days after the Belmont Stakes. In 1910 it was run three days before the Kentucky Derby. It was not until 1925 that the distance settled once and for all at today’s mile and three-sixteenths, and not until 1931 that the Preakness finally came to permanent rest as the middle child in what had only recently become known as the Triple Crown family of 3-year-old events.

[PREAKNESS STAKES: Live updates and live video from Pimlico]

So much for tradition. Still, 81 presentations of anything without interruption or alteration should qualify as impressive. To be part of that history is significant, and there are very good horses whose reputations made do with winning only the Preakness among the three spring classics. Since 1931, the list includes Hall of Famers Alsab, Hill Prince and Bold Ruler, along with champions Challedon,Tom Rolfe, Personality, Snow Chief, Prairie Bayou, Bernardini, Curlin, and Rachel Alexandra.

The latest in that line was Lookin At Lucky, who in 2010 bounced back after a disastrous trip from the one hole in a 20-horse Kentucky Derby to beat First Dude in the Preakness by three-quarters of a length. Lookin At Lucky then skipped the Belmont and went on to earn an Eclipse Award with wins in the Haskell Invitational and the Indiana Derby and a fourth to Blame and Zenyatta in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Lookin At Lucky was campaigned by Mike Pegram and his Arizona partners, Karl Watson and Paul Weitman. Now Pegram is back for another Preakness on Saturday with his homebred Govenor Charlie, the runaway winner of the Sunland Park Derby who passed on the Kentucky Derby with a foot problem. Pegram, notoriously superstitious, did not even make a plane reservation until his trainer, Bob Baffert, put Govenor Charlie on a flight Wednesday from Louisville to Baltimore.

“I’ve got a lot of respect for those races,” Pegram said before heading east. “Bobby had to be sure he was a hundred percent. You don’t go in there with only five of six bullets in your gun.”

Compared to Pegram’s previous Preakness runners, Govenor Charlie is a raw rookie, with only three starts to his name. In 1998 Pegram’s Kentucky Derby winner Real Quiet was making his 14th start when he added the Preakness. Captain Steve, fourth to Red Bullet in the Preakness of 2000, was making his 13th start that day. Lookin At Lucky, the reigning 2-year-old champion, made nine starts before winning his Preakness.

“All those horses were smart and talented – real athletes,” Pegram said. “Govenor Charlie still lacks experience, and as we all know it’s experience that makes you a champion. But he deserves the shot.”

The decision to run Govenor Charlie against the impressive Derby winner Orb and seven others in such a high-profile event comes with a built-in risk, other than the usual perils of a Thoroughbred contest. The colt, by Midnight Lute, is named for the late Charles Russell, schoolteacher, newspaper publisher and two-term governor of Nevada from 1951 to 1959. Besides his chain of McDonald’s franchises in Arizona, Pegram owns two casinos in northern Nevada. The last thing he wants to do is sully Russell’s name with a Preakness bust.

“Charlie’s son, Clark Russell, has been a big supporter of the Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs of northern Nevada,” Pegram explained. “At their fund-raiser every year we let them auction off the right to name one of our horses. Clark got it in the bidding and named a colt C J Russell, who was a good horse but unfortunately died. I told him I’d give him another shot at naming a good one, and the day that I called him just happened to be his dad’s birthday. So Clark picked a good name for a good horse.”

There is more to the story, although it has nothing to do with Govenor Charlie. C J Russell, age 4 at the time, collapsed and died after completing a race at Hollywood Park on June 15, 2012. Some 13 months earlier the colt had made a winning debut in a maiden race on Derby day at Churchill Downs and went on to finish second in the graded Jersey Shore Stakes at Monmouth. As noted in C J Russell’s state-mandated necropsy, his was the fourth incident of apparent heart-related sudden death experienced by a Baffert-trained horse at Hollywood Park in the space of just over seven months. In the nine months between the death of C J Russell and mid-March of 2013, three more Baffert trained horses suffered fatal cardiac failure at Hollywood. A racing board investigation is in progress.

“As you can imagine, it was very upsetting for Clark,” Pegram said. “We had high hopes for C J Russell, and he was a homebred as well. You always want to know why one of your horses died, especially when he dies suddenly on the racetrack. I know there’s been a lot of time and money spent on trying to find out why. I hope the report comes out soon, and when the whole story gets told I’m convinced we’ll know exactly why C J Russell died.”

In the meantime, Pegram hopes to see the famous Pimlico weather vane painted in his red and yellow colors late Saturday for the third time in 16 years. The last stable to win a third Preakness was the Woodward family’s Bel Air Stud in 1955, when Nashua turned the trick. Calumet leads all Preakness owners with seven winners, and all of their names, cracked a wiseguy, were spelled correctly. Can we pin “govenor” on The Jockey Club?

“Blame a hick from Indiana,” Pegram said, pointing to himself. “I went to Princeton, but unfortunately it was Princeton High School and not the university. Good thing it doesn’t matter to the horse.”