The touts said Riva Ridge, but Frank said Bee Bee Bee

James M. Merritt

May 17, 1991|By James M. Merritt

IN ALL MY YEARS of attending the races, the best handicapper I ever knew was Capt. Frank Case, a former ship master, who had come ashore to open a nautical instrument shop on South Gay Street, then Baltimore's principal maritime thoroughfare.

The captain always maintained that, next to the Chesapeake blue crab, the Preakness was the best thing Baltimore had going for it. In his opinion it was the greatest horse race in the country, one for which the Kentucky Derby was merely a proving ground for 3-year-olds to establish their right to compete in the Preakness.

But, in 1972, it looked as if this theory addressed a moot question. The reason was a horse named Riva Ridge, who had demolished the Derby field by 11 lengths and was a one-to-three favorite to win the Preakness. His trainer, the renowned Lucien Laurin, proclaimed to all who would listen that he had a triple-crown winner on his hands.

All during Preakness Week, Frank never mentioned the race. Finally on Preakness eve between races at Pimlico he broke his silence:

"You know, Jim, Riva Ridge isn't going to win the Preakness and I think I know who will. It's a Maryland-bred horse owned by a highly respected Maryland stable whose record shows they always plan their races well, and they have a veteran jockey on board who is expert at rating a horse once he gets to the front. They're going right after this race and if the track turns up muddy tomorrow, as the forecast predicts, their chances are even better. The horse's name is Bee Bee Bee, and he's owned by the Farish stable."

"Frank," I said, "I bet that horse last year at Timonium. How in the world . . . ?"

"Listen," Frank interrupted, "victory doesn't always go to the swiftest. Tomorrow's Preakness will prove that. If you want to bet the favorite, go ahead, but I never knew you to lay the odds in a race."

Frank studied the next day's card as I was driving him home, and as I parked he handed me $15 and said, "In case I don't make it tomorrow, I want you to parlay $5 to win on Rare Knave and Xandra in the two races before the Preakness and, if it stands up, let it all go on Bee Bee Bee. If it doesn't, just bet the ten on him to win."

He then revealed the disquieting news that his doctor had ordered him to go to a laboratory the next day for a chest X-ray at 2 p.m. According to the physician, this lab boasted the latest equipment.

The rain began as I pulled away from Frank's place. By post time for the Preakness, the track was a sea of slop. There were seven horses in the field because only two Derby horses had elected to try Riva Ridge again in the Preakness. Frank's parlay had survived, which gave me $40 altogether to bet for him on Bee Bee Bee. I added $10 and bought a $50 win ticket on the horse. Frank was still in absentia.

Breaking well from the No. 7 post, Bee Bee Bee was leading by a head at the clubhouse turn. At the half, he had a 1 1/2 -length advantage under jockey Eldon Nelson's perfect rating. Around the far turn they came with Bee Bee Bee's lead now four lengths. Straightened for home, Nelson put his horse to pressure, and he began to draw off. It was then I realized that here was a grand theft in progress before 60,000 mostly hostile witnesses.

As Bee Bee Bee splashed across the finish line under Nelson's flailing whip 1 1/2 lengths ahead of the fast-closing No Le Hace, I was on my way to the $50 cashier and an early start home. The time of the race was 1.55 and three-fifths, not far off Seabiscuit's track record of 1.54. Riva Ridge struggled in fourth, beaten by seven lengths. Three weeks later he won the Belmont Stakes.

The next day's critiques said the jockeys on the main contenders were so busy watching each other as they put snug holds on their mounts that they forgot to watch Bee Bee Bee. Only No Le Hace responded when set down after fighting the bit to the top of the stretch.

Frank had watched the race on television. Why hadn't he come to the track?

"Because those devils at the lab cleaned me out," he explained. "They had the latest equipment, all right, because when I mentioned I had left my checkbook at the store, they took another picture. They must have had a pocket probe on that machine, because my bill was exactly the amount of cash I had in my jeans, 60 bucks."

But the Preakness gods are ever protective of their faithful. Bee Bee Bee had paid $39.40 to win.

James M. Merritt has been attending Preaknesses for nearly 70 years.

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