05/07/2010 12:00AM

The undervalued jewel

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Tom Keyser
Rachel Alexandra, with Calvin Borel aboard, in 2009 became the first filly since 1924 to win the Preakness.

Maryland officials recently entered into an agreement with MI Developments, the owner of Pimlico Race Course, that would make it nigh onto impossible for any ownership group to move the treasured Preakness Stakes to one of the other 49 states or, even worse, the District of Columbia. It is called the Preakness Covenant.

This action does not figure to trigger a panic of preemptive strikes. New Orleans is in no apparent danger of losing Mardi Gras. Indianapolis need not take extra precautions to protect the 500. Boston will be keeping its marathon.

And while there have been no legitimate threats to shop the Preakness out of state, the fact that the covenant process was deemed necessary at all speaks volumes about the turmoil in which the second jewel in America's racing Triple Crown has found itself over the last several years.

The 2009 bankruptcy declaration of Magna Entertainment Corp., which purchased a majority interest in Pimlico and Laurel and the rights to the Preakness from the De Francis family in 2002, gave rise to speculation that Maryland's most famous sporting event might be marketed as a separate and valuable asset. Doug Gansier, Maryland's attorney general, was quick to act, drafting legislation that would grant the state "condemnation authority" over any of MEC's Maryland assets. The subsequent covenant replaced that legislation.

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Imagine, though, a simple horse race so important to the interests of a sovereign state that its preservation is protected by statute. By contrast, a similar civic reaction did not take place when the Maryland Jockey Club canceled the historic Pimlico Special this year for the fourth time in the last decade. But then, the Special - won by Seabiscuit, Citation, Tom Fool, and Cigar - is not the Preakness.

The Preakness, of course, represents much more than those couple of minutes 3-year-olds spend circling 1 3/16 miles on the third Saturday in May. This year, as in the past, there will be a formal, weeklong Preakness Celebration, featuring hot air balloons, a frog hop, events for kids, a crab derby, the Preakness Parade of Lights, and a 5K run. Gotta have that 5K run.

Preakness Day itself brings a healthy chunk of Maryland to a standstill. Parties are rampant, mirroring Derby gatherings in their tradition and social intensity. Pimlico itself is jam-packed. Or at least it was until the wide-open, BYO beer policy governing alcohol was outlawed last year, effectively turning the normally raucous infield from racing's answer to Woodstock into a Methodist church picnic. The effect, both on the local public and the company's bottom line, resulted in a quick reversal. This year, 20 bucks will buy you a mug and unlimited refills, as long as you don't mind standing in line. Sometime around the sixth race, standing will be optional, if not impossible.

The cultural impact of the Preakness stands in stark contrast to its desire to be viewed historically as a horse race of the highest order. Wishing does not always make it so. Its winners through the years tend to fall roughly into three categories, in rapidly descending order of lasting importance.

If the Derby winner wins the Preakness - which has happened in seven of the its last dozen runnings and 32 times overall - then the prospects of a Triple Crown winner are firmly in place and the sports world becomes immediately energized, grateful that the Preakness has done its part. Big Brown was the most recent colt to accomplish the task.

If a top Derby contender who was beaten in Louisville bounces back to win the Preakness, the world at large tends to look away with a shrug and grudgingly wonders what might have been, even though aficionados of the sport breathe a sigh of relief that order has been restored. Afleet Alex, Point Given, Risen Star, and Snow Chief are the best of the more recent examples.

But if the Derby winner, no matter how originally obscure, loses at Pimlico to anything less than one of the top 3-year-olds in the crop, memories of the middle jewel in the crown sink quickly from sight. They might as well have called it the Peter Pan.

This is too bad, because many times in its history the Preakness has been a gem of a competitive event, independent of any expectations imposed by either the Derby result or hopes for a Triple Crown. In many ways, it is a better horse race than either the Kentucky Derby - with its 20-horse nightmare fraught with trouble and excuses - or the subsequent Belmont Stakes, a race run around an eternal oval at a 1 1/2-mile distance that few, if any, in the crop will ever see again.

The Preakness, with its maximum field of 14, run at a distance squarely between nine and 10 furlongs, resembles many of the other major events that help determine the best of the breed. Unfortunately, the tendency in recent years has been for owners and trainers to go all-in for the Derby and then skip the Preakness, diluting the strength of the field and leaving occasional lopsided results.

It wasn't always so. In the past, the Pimlico race often has attracted the key principals from the Derby to roll the dice again, whether it was Lucky Debonair, Dapper Dan, Tom Rolfe and Hail to All in 1965; Foolish Pleasure, Avatar, Master Derby and Diabolo from 1975; or Alysheba, Bet Twice, Cryptoclearance and Gulch from 1987. When the 2007 Preakness rematched Street Sense with Hard Spun and Curlin, the 1-2-4 Derby finishers, the race was rising to its best, historic levels.

This might be a good time to offer a more organized reminiscence of the Preakness as stand-alone entertainment, suggesting, say, a top 10 of modern-day Preakness runnings, with "modern day" defined as anything that happened after the setting of the first episode of "Mad Men."

For starters, a pair of visceral rivalries makes the list, one of them freshly hatched, the other of long-standing intensity.

Talk was cheap and plentiful during the early months of 1989. In New York, Easy Goer was making good on his promise as a 2-year-old champion with fast, fluid wins in the Swale, the Gotham, and the Wood Memorial. At the same time, out West, Sunday Silence had emerged as the colt of choice, burying rivals in the San Felipe and Santa Anita Derby. When they finally met in the Kentucky Derby, Sunday Silence beat Easy Goer by 2 1/2 lengths, but the track was a muddy mess, and no one east of the Appalachians was convinced the right horse won.

"Sunday Silence may well turn out to be the best colt in the land," wrote Steven Crist, now publisher of the Daily Racing Form, in the New York Times. "But few will believe that until he beats Easy Goer again."

So he did, two weeks later, in a Preakness that still gets fans squabbling over drinks. Sunday Silence moved first, Easy Goer jumped him on the turn, then Sunday Silence came out and around and swept past Easy Goer heading into the Pimlico stretch. Cheek to cheek, they clawed at each other until the wire mercifully arrived, with Sunday Silence a nose in front.

By contrast, Affirmed and Alydar arrived at Pimlico in 1978 more familiar to each other than Burns and Allen. They'd already met seven times, six as 2-year-olds and then in the Kentucky Derby, where Affirmed defeated Alydar for the fourth time. But like old age and taxes, Alydar just kept coming, and there was even a moment midway in the Pimlico stretch when it looked as if it might be Alydar's day. Still, Affirmed won by a neck.

A rivalry of a different sort spiced the 1962 Preakness, won by Greek Money by a nose over the massive, favored Ridan. John Rotz rode Greek Money, and to this day he thinks Ridan's flamboyant rider, Manuel Ycaza, was channeling past encounters when he reached over with an elbow, deep in the stretch.

"We'd crossed paths a few times in big races, when I got the better of Ycaza," Rotz recalled. "I can't imagine what he was thinking, though. If he'd just ridden his own horse I think he would have won."

To make matters worse - or at least more humorous - Ycaza claimed foul against Rotz. Later, when confronted with the patrol film, Ycaza insisted he lost his balance. The story must have helped, since Manny only served 10 days.

There are moments among the great ones in modern Preakness history that stand out because of tremendous individual effort. This happened in 1971 when Canonero II, the mysterious colt from Venezuela, validated his shocking upset in the Kentucky Derby with a track-record victory in the Preakness. The postrace interviews with Canonero's jockey and trainer were still difficult without translation, but whatever they said, everyone was suddenly taking them seriously.

In a similar vein, Mine That Bird ran an admirable Preakness in 2009 to prove his romp two weeks earlier in the Kentucky Derby was not a fraud. As it turned out, though, his late kick fell a length short of a catching a legend on the rise.

Rachel Alexandra, fresh from her domination of the Kentucky Oaks, laid that same race on the colts at Pimlico, then went on from there to become Horse of the Year. It wasn't quite as simple as that, but the Preakness is where she seized the stage and never let go.

Not all great individual efforts get their colors painted on the infield cupola weather vane. There is a basic unfairness in describing a horse who has just run a lights-out race as a loser, especially when that loss can be measured in inches. No one ever said horse racing is fair.

In 1997, a bumper year for 3-year-olds, the Preakness gathered the first three finishers from the Kentucky Derby, shook them up, and rolled a perfect three-way photo. Derby winner Silver Charm got there first, with Free House second and Captain Bodgit third. The margins were a head, and a head, which made it the closest, most crowded finish in the history of the classic.

"It was a privilege just to be in a race like that," said Bob Lewis, who owned Silver Charm.

Sometimes, though, it is a blessing just to survive, and the most memorable moments occur someplace other than the finish line.

In 2005, Jeremy Rose and favored Afleet Alex were making what appeared to be a steady, professional move on the outside of the leader, Scrappy T, as the Preakness field made the final turn. In the next instant, Scrappy T swerved hard to the right from the left-handed whip of Ramon Dominguez, directly into Afleet Alex's path.

Rose and his colt were unable to avoid the back heels of Scrappy T. During the next few split seconds, Afleet Alex took several stumbling steps, his knees scraping the ground, as he fought to both regain his stride and maintain his momentum. He did, and went on to a comfortable victory, leaving reporters on the scene hard-pressed to describe what they'd seen.

"For a moment there was fear and dread," wrote Dave Joseph in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

"Afleet Alex's front legs buckled, his head bowed, and the crowd gasped," reported Richard Rosenblatt for the Associated Press.

"He could have very easily gone down," said a relieved Rose, "and we would have been run over by the field."

The near disaster of the 2005 Preakness turned into a thrilling story, making the highlight reels of every sports broadcast for days on end. One year later, though, the race was not so lucky.

Barbaro, the undefeated Kentucky Derby winner, was odds-on to add the Preakness and continue his march toward the 2006 Triple Crown. He was on edge and ready to rumble, even popping the front doors of the starting gate before the race began. Reloaded, Barbaro was away in a bit of a tangle and had barely run a hundred yards before fracturing three bones in his right hind leg.

In a heartbeat, the race itself was rendered almost inconsequential. The injured Barbaro was held as quietly as possible on the outside rail, literally within reach of fans, as Bernardini raced to a 5 1/4-length victory. All of the postrace attention was focused on the wounded Derby winner, and for the next eight months his desperate struggle to rebound from complicated surgery was the most significant horse racing story. Barbaro finally was euthanized in January 2007.

No one died, but the term "mugging" was thrown around so often after the 1980 Preakness that you'd think the race had been run in Central Park. After her victory in the Kentucky Derby, Genuine Risk was the toast of the sports world. In the Preakness, she was running her race again, at least until she ranged up alongside the Santa Anita and Hollywood Derby winner Codex, ridden by Angel Cordero.

As Codex rounded the final turn, Cordero glanced right and saw Genuine Risk and her rider, Jacinto Vasquez, coming fast. At that point Angel allowed his colt to straighten the turn and float to the right, packing the filly along for the ride. When they finally straightened for the run to the wire, Codex spurted clear. The filly pursued, but the race was over.

Almost. After the Pimlico stewards dismissed a claim of foul from Vasquez and declared the race official, the issue ended up in front of the Maryland Racing Commission. On June 4, 18 days after the race was run, the commission ruled the victory of Codex would stand.

That was not the first time the Maryland Racing Commission had been involved with a Preakness result. Seven years earlier, in the wake of Secretariat's victory in 1973, the commissioners had to deal with hard evidence that the official time of 1:55 flat posted by the track was incorrect, and that Big Red had actually run the 1 3/16 miles in 1:53 and two-fifths of a second. At least, that was the time provided by various independent clockers, including Frenchy Schwartz of the Daily Racing Form, and verified by CBS video analysis. In its wisdom, track officials ended up accepting a time in between, depriving Secretariat of a Preakness and Pimlico record.

Like he cared. Secretariat's time for the '73 Preakness was, as far as his legacy is concerned, meaningless. It was what he did around the clubhouse turn of the race that will live forever.

Going past the stands the first time, Secretariat was taking his usual early stroll, a big guy getting his act together. Ron Turcotte, approaching the first turn and sensing a modest pace, gave Secretariat the cue to pass a couple of horses, then a couple of more - all around the bend going at straightaway speed - until they reached the backstretch on the verge of taking the outright lead. From there Big Red never looked back.

Witnesses were stunned. Even good horses who might try a move like that would inevitably fade from the effort, and as soon as they got back, the jockey would be fired on the spot. Secretariat was different, though, and Turcotte left no doubts.

"If that move had failed, Turcotte would have come under a sharper and more unrelenting attack than he'd ever been under in his life," wrote Bill Nack, Secretariat's biographer. "But Secretariat won under a hand-ride, without strong urging, so the move began to take on all the aspects of a masterstroke."

While Secretariat's Kentucky Derby victory was fast and impressive, it unfolded in relatively conventional terms. On the other hand, his first turn in the Preakness was without precedent. It set the table for what was to come, raising expectations that only Secretariat could meet. Three weeks later, his 31-length win in the Belmont Stakes was breathtaking and awe-inspiring. But after what he'd done on the first turn of the Preakness, it was not really a surprise.