There was a rehearsal at Pimlico Race Course yesterday morning for Saturday's 116th Preakness. Four of the seven likely starters had their final serious workouts for the 1 3/16-mile classic, and afterward none of their trainers felt any lines had been flubbed.
Kentucky Derby winner Strike the Gold, on the track at about 6:15 a.m. with Chris Antley aboard, drew the closest scrutiny from early-rising critics.
The Alydar colt worked six furlongs, breaking off about seven lengths behind stablemate Iroquois Drive before sailing past him with ease in the stretch. He finished in 1 minute, 12 3/5 seconds.
"Hey, we're ready," a smiling Antley told trainer Nick Zito upon returning. "We are ready."
Zito was undecided about whether to work Strike the Gold yesterday or this morning, but a threat of rain today convinced him that he should play things safe and proceed. "Just as well," said Zito.
After returning to the Preakness barn, Antley and Zito expressed confidence that the colt will be 2-for-2 in the Triple Crown after Saturday's race.
"I liked this work better than the one for the Derby [when Strike the Gold went a half-mile in a slow 51 2/5 seconds]," said Antley. "He glided better around these turns, and he did it all on his own. When he has a horse in front of him, he runs until he's got him. I only tapped him once on the shoulder at about the 16th pole.
"I thought this horse had run his best race in [winning] the Blue Grass Stakes, but then he ran even better in the Derby. I thought the work today was a good sign that's he's learning more and still maturing. He'll run good. I've got a lot of faith in this colt."
Strike the Gold went in even fractions, passing the furlong poles in 12 seconds, 24 seconds, 36 seconds, 47 4/5 seconds and 1 minute.
Antley, 25, rode the colt for the first time in the Blue Grass. Zito said he is "very happy with Chris. In Kentucky, we all thought he might have been taking things a little lightly. But look at him now, the way he's handling things. He's doing great. I'm very proud of him."
Zito, a 43-year-old Long Island resident, said, "Anybody who tries to discredit Strike the Gold is asking for trouble.
"Allen Jerkens [a Hall of Fame trainer] once told me if you want to be a wise guy in this game, you'll end up spitting in your own face," he said. "One thing we know is we've got Strike the Gold, the Kentucky Derby winner. You've got to be special to win the Kentucky Derby."
The handlers of the three other Preakness candidates to work also expressed satisfaction. Best Pal went a half-mile in 47 2/5 seconds, and Mane Minister (1:00) and Corporate Report (58 3/5 seconds) worked five furlongs.
Best Pal, second in all three of his 1991 starts, including the Kentucky Derby, is the opponent to fear most, Antley said.
"The strongest newcomer is Olympio," he said. "But Best Pal is definitely the one to beat again."
Ian Jory, trainer of Best Pal, said the half-mile work was just what he wanted for the gelding. "He seemed to enjoy himself, and he wasn't too tired," he said.
"I think he'll like the [Pimlico] tight turns, and he obviously likes a fast surface," he added. "I honestly think this track might be better for him than Churchill."
Corporate Report, ninth in the Derby, worked just before Strike the Gold. "He did it awful easy," said trainer D. Wayne Lukas.
Trainer Juan "Paco" Gonzalez said he "didn't want to do too much" with Mane Minister, third in the Derby at 87-1 odds. "He looks good, and he is training good," he said.
Whadjathink has finished his most serious preparation, as has Olympio, who should vie for the favorite's role with Strike the Gold. The lone remaining candidate scheduled for a drill of substance is Honor Grades, who will work five furlongs this morning.
Zito said he is aware of the progress being made by the other horses and of the potential pratfalls that await the Derby winner. Whether the reputation is deserved or not, Pimlico is known as a speed-favoring track that might not suit Strike the Gold's late-running style as well as Churchill Downs did.
"But somebody was telling me the last time a horse went wire-to-wire in the Preakness was Aloma's Ruler [in 1982]," he said. "There's only seven horses in here and a lot of speed."
Zito, who has seemed more at ease at Pimlico than he was in Kentucky, said that after Olympio worked Saturday, Lukas approached him.
"I like Wayne and everything," he said, "but he said, 'Olympio looked good didn't he?' And I said: 'Yeah, but so what? So what? I don't mean to come across as being smart, but what can I do about it?"
"Wayne is the coach. He's more a student of the game. I'm Nick Zito. I train my own horses. I've got enough problems without worrying about how everybody else's horses are doing."