For years, unusually fast clockings and Preakness time were synonymous. Although Pimlico's reputation as a speed-favoring track still lingers, whatever bias -- if any -- existed in recent years was a much more subtle one.
But last weekend, when Farma Way led wire-to-wire and broke the track record in the Pimlico Special, and other horses ran faster times than might be expected, the issue had to be raised again: Are we back to the days of the paved highway?
From every corner, the answer is no -- from track superintendent John Passero to track president Joe De Francis to trainers of the Preakness horses. Absolutely nothing is being done, they insist, to quicken the surface.
"You can't deny the track is faster than normal right now," said Chick Lang, the track's former longtime general manager.
"I used to be accused of rolling the track, scraping it, trying to get it too fast for the Preakness," he said. "[Former track owner] Ben Cohen roared into my office one day and got all over me about it. I raise my right hand to God that I never had anything done to the track."
Then what is it? Trainer Ron McAnally, who has Olympio in Saturday's Preakness, maintains the inherent nature of the surface simply favors horses with early speed -- such as Olympio. "As long as I've been coming here, for about 10 years," said McAnally.
D. Wayne Lukas, who will send out Corporate Report, said: "This track varies so much. In California, you can depend on sunshine and 78 degrees and regulate your water and depth and everything else. Here, the weather is much different, which presents whole new problems."
"He [Passero] tries to get it in the best possible shape he can. I honestly don't believe he tries to make the track fast, slow or indifferent."
* Lang, 64, has been out of Pimlico management since after the 1987 Preakness, but he hasn't slowed down much.
He's still active in racing as an analyst for WBAL radio, a consultant for Arlington International Racecourse in Chicago, a customer relations representative for AmTote, an adviser for Suffolk Downs in Massachusetts and a representative for a group trying to purchase Rosecroft Raceway.
And he's still out early every morning of Preakness week, rubbing elbows with old friends.
* Fields of nine were drawn yesterday for two big races at Pimlico Friday.
Wide Country drew the far outside post in the $250,000 Black Eyed Susan Stakes. And Opening Verse, a likely heavy favorite, drew No. 2 in the $150,000 Dixie Handicap.
* Clockers were impressed Monday when Sea Cadet, McAnally's other top 3-year-old, sped four furlongs in 46 3/5 seconds.
McAnally, however, has no inclination to try the bob-tailed colt in the Preakness. Sea Cadet led to mid-stretch in the Derby before tiring to eighth.
"With his speed, I'd like to," he said, "but, again, there's just the two weeks between races."
Sea Cadet will run next in the May 27 Jersey Derby.
McAnally said a four-week layoff for Olympio could give him an edge over horses that ran in the Derby.
* Lite Light, winner of the Kentucky Oaks, is a definite starter for the Belmont Stakes on June 8, it was announced yesterday. . . . Trainer Nick Zito, on how Strike the Gold would be affected if the track came up muddy Saturday: "Like an old trainer in Ozone Park [N.Y.] said, 'A good horse can run over broken bottles.' An off track would be no problem."