Much belated but everlasting gratitude is due the colonels and their ladies for exercising the prerogative to run the Kentucky Derby as the first of the Triple Crown races. What it does for the Preakness is conveniently and expeditiously eliminate the excess baggage.
Referring to the Derby as a preliminary to the Preakness is an old bromide that sounds good for provincial bragging purposes but, in truth, is a cheap shot. The Preakness will never surpass the Derby in acceptance because it's going against the grain of too much history, tradition, renown and worldwide focus. And, of course, the vast Kentucky breeding empire.
Baltimore can put on a larger parade, fill the skies with more balloons, even inflate the crowd counts and present all kinds of extracurricular activity around the Preakness. But, realistically, it's destined to remain where it is -- a respected No. 2 in the thoroughbred trilogy, with the Belmont Stakes to follow.
There's only one Niagara Falls, one Cloudersport Ice Mine and one Grand Ole Opry. Likewise, one Kentucky Derby. It stands alone. There has even been consideration given to calling the Preakness the Maryland Preakness, just in case there's some among the uninitiated who might wonder about its location.
This serves to convey how desperate the thirst for recognition can become. But if you have to emulate the Kentucky Derby by tagging it the Maryland Preakness then chances are the next question before the class is, "Where's Maryland"?
The Preakness has an edge on the Derby in two respects. The hotels, taxicabs and restaurants of Baltimore don't follow the bush-league trick of Louisville by escalating prices during Preakness week. Now that's the truly caring way to treat a visitor. The other positive aspect, from a racing viewpoint, is the field of horses is more compact.
This makes for less traffic on the track and easier watching for the spectators. The Preakness, to use racing parlance, is a more "honest race" because the horses have room to run without the fear of being impeded in their travels. This year's Derby had 16 horses breaking from the gate.
The Preakness will have a comparative handful, only eight, which makes for a truer test of speed and stamina. Bump and run doesn't play well in Baltimore. Annually, the Derby is packed with thoroughbred bodies but, by the time the spotlight is on the Preakness, the physical pressure eases, because of the elimination process.
Jockey Chris Antley, who has a tremendous colt, Strike the Gold, under him, says, "Post positions aren't as much of a consideration in the Preakness. With a smaller field, the rush from the gate isn't all that essential." But he couldn't say that in the Derby, where his first consideration coming out of the No. 5 post was to stay upright and, secondly, to avoid getting his colt encumbered by the mass of congestion.
Antley elected to take the high road, circling outside, and still had enough to overcome the highly respected Best Pal, who saved ground near the rail. But Strike the Gold put the entire contingent away in championship style and won it the hard way. Trainer Nick Zito, who laughed off the critics who ridiculed his conditioning methods, believes Strike the Gold will assert himself again.
"You can't change the horse's style," he said. "My job is to keep him happy, contented and have him ready. He gives his all every time out. You can't ask more than that. I don't know how much strategy will figure into it, but it's good to realize the field won't create a traffic problem for any of us."
Best Pal, after the Derby films were scrutinized, had an excuse coming out of the Churchill Downs stampede. That's not all that unusual since every year contestants get shut off or boxed in because they have to deal with so much ponderous bulk. For instance, Best Pal, at two critical stages, had to be taken up by jockey Gary Stevens to avoid interference.
The Preakness, with a more comfortable field, will afford a 1 3/16-mile adventure that's more appealing for all concerned -- jockeys, horses and spectators. It's an "honest race."