It's a race within a race, the Preakness Redux, the rematch of Summer Squall vs. Unbridled.
Tomorrow the two colts meet for the first time this year in what could be America's definitive horse race of 1991.
That's how special this Preakness Special might be.
There are great races yet to come this season, but Pimlico has brought it all together so early in the campaign.
But for one last-minute scare yesterday, when there was a possibility that one of the horses might have to be scratched, all seven runners, including the two stars, are sound, fit and at the top of their game.
Rarely, especially in a world involving such fragile-limbed animals, does such an event occur.
A month ago virtually the same field, less Summer Squall, met at Oaklawn Park. Unfortunately, the weather didn't cooperate. It rained and excuses abounded.
But tomorrow, forecasters predict plenty of sun and warm temperatures. The track at Old Hilltop should be fast. The crowd should exceed last year's total of more than 22,000.
Not only do Summer Squall and Unbridled renew their Triple Crown rivalry of 1990, but they meet three new major challengers -- Jolie's Halo, Farma Way and Festin.
The field is rounded out by Silver Survivor and Reputed Testamony, ranked a notch or two below the "Fabulous Five," but they are quality horses, nonetheless.
The atmosphere surrounding this race has been one of quiet intensity. There hasn't been the frenzy of a Kentucky Derby. But the excitement of the impending foray is felt.
It shows in the sometimes uptight demeanor of Neil Howard. He is attempting to pull off one of the great training feats of the young '90s: getting Summer Squall into championship form off of just one sprint prep.
Happy Alter's pugnacious mood shows on the stall plaque of Jolie's Halo. It is imprinted with boxing gloves.
Carl Nafzger oversees the career of Unbridled and relieves the pressure now and then by recalling his rodeo days. Training horses, he says, is easier than riding bulls.
Wayne Lukas won the Pimlico Special a year ago with Criminal Type, the colt's first step toward Horse of the Year. Lukas tries for a repeat with Farma Way, the Santa Anita Handicap winner.
The calm in the eye of this collective storm of training talent is soft-spoken, level-headed Hall of Famer Ron McAnally.
Calm, cool and collected -- that is until he lost the registration papers to Festin yesterday.
Without the papers, the horse would have to be scratched. The papers prove the identity of the animal and, under the rules of racing, are needed even for a high profile animal like Festin running in a Grade I stake.
"I put the papers, along with those of Olympio, in a manila envelope and took them along with me to the post draw breakfast," McAnally said last night. "I got to doing a lot of television and print interviews, and forgot about them. Three hours later it came to me and I rushed over to the Sports Palace to see if they were still there. By this time, the place was filling up with bettors, playing the horses. The envelope was nowhere to be found."
McAnally enlisted the help of track management. "I don't know how many people looked in the garbage, the trash compactors, everywhere, trying to find those papers," he said. Finally, the Jockey Club was contacted. "I had to fax a notarized letter of authorization detailing what had happened. Today a girl from the track identification department has to come and take pictures and read his tattoo. Then the Jockey Club should issue duplicate papers in time for the race. In this business, registration papers -- are like gold. The horse's health records were also attached to the papers. There are duplicates of those in Los Angeles, and they will have to be faxed, too.
"I think we will be OK, but this has rattled me, mentally and emotionally."
Fortunately, it hasn't disturbed Festin one bit.
McAnally is starting to believe the Argentine-bred horse is something special, even though he is fifth choice. So far, Festin is the point leader in the American Racing Championship Series, but his victory last time in the Oaklawn Handicap is regarded as a fluke because it came on a wet track.
But McAnally likes what he sees in the morning. "I worked this colt at Churchill Downs before the Derby; he was there with Sea Cadet," McAnally said. "He went seven-eighths in 1:26 and galloped out a mile in 1:40. I thought that was a pretty top work. But when he got back to the barn, he wasn't even blowing. He wasn't even sweating. I couldn't believe him."
And that's exactly what McAnally said Festin was like yesterday after blowing out a half mile in 46 seconds for the Special. "He didn't turn a hair," McAnally said. "I have to conclude he's on top of another big race."
McAnally said Festin's chances are excellent if the pace is fast. "Then he can close on those horses," he said. "If the pace isn't fast, then our chances aren't so good."
The horse to beat?
Farma Way, in McAnally's opinion.