IT DOESN'T GET much better than this.
First, there was the Pimlico Special. It took a record-breaking, devastating display of speed by Farma Way to beat the best older horses in training. Rarely has such a collection of animals, in the peak of health, congregated in one race at one time.
Now, the momentum from that race has carried over to the 116th Preakness.
There is not a great rivalry in the mold of a Sunday Silence-Easy Goer match or the feeling that you are about to witness an awesome display of equine power by a Secretariat or a Spectacular Bid.
But the neatly packaged Preakness that will be presented tomorrow (5:32, Ch. 13) has all the elements of high thoroughbred drama.
The eight-horse field contains a little bit of everything. It is largely a group of lightly raced, fresh horses who are healthy and have a good reason for being here. Even Whadjathink, the longest shot on the program at 30-to-1, comes off a graded stakes win on the country's toughest racing circuit in California.
There are horses with divergent running styles and some with a good bit of speed. It is this element of speed that poses a dilemma for the Kentucky Derby winner, Strike the Gold. Does the stamina-laden son of Alydar have enough late kick to run down all those quick horses rambling away in front of him?
After seeing speed horses run 1-2-3 in the Special last weekend, it doesn't take a genius to figure out that Strike the Gold has his work cut out for him.
Then there is Olympio. He provides an unknown, provocative element. His trainer, Ron McAnally, chose not to run in the Kentucky Derby, but decided instead to wait for the Preakness.
How about handsome Hansel? Favored in the Kentucky Derby, he ran the poorest race of his career, but now seeks redemption in Baltimore.
Is Best Pal the best bet? Most likely he will be the third choice. But there's every reason to think he can improve on his runner-up performance in the Derby, when he broke from leftfield in the 15-post.
Then there are the jockeys. In the history of the race, there probably has never been a more experienced group of riders that have proven their Preakness prowess. Five are previous winners: Pat Day, Alex Solis, Chris McCarron, Eddie Delahoussaye and Jorge Velasquez. The other three have finished in the money in the Preakness at least once.
The owners represent a cross section of Americana.
There are the John Mabees, an Iowa couple that migrated to California with $200, started a fruit stand, eventually expanded it into a grocery store and now own the "Big Bear" chain of supermarkets and 600 thoroughbreds, including Best Pal.
Other horse owners include some big name athletes -- Wayne Gretzky and Magic Johnson, partners with Los Angeles Kings owner Bruce McNall in Honor Grades -- and a man involved in games as the distributor of Pictionary, Joseph Cornacchio, one of the owners of Strike the Gold. There's an armaments manufacturer, Dick Duchossois, who is represented by Whadjathink. Olympio owner Verne Winchell is the former CEO of Denny's, the 24-hour "We're Always Open" restaurant.
The most visible trainer is almost always the one with the Derby winner. What a relief to see Nick Zito actually smile. There is nothing more ominous than to see a grouchy New Yorker. There was no question that in the final days leading up to the Derby his middle name was spelled s-t-r-e-s-s.
But Strike the Gold came through with the victory. And Zito has reconciled with his wife, Jan, who found out by reading in the newspapers before the Derby that their marriage was about to break up.
In the final analysis, though, here is what it boils down to: Can Strike the Gold do his best imitation of Pleasant Colony and run down the speed?
From this angle, I'm putting my $2 on Best Pal. I picked him in the Derby and I'm sticking with him one more time.
Anyway, who could get mad about losing money on a horse named Best Pal?
L It would be a little bit like putting down My Friend Flicka.
WHAT YOU CAN NOT BRING
* Liquor or drugs
* Hibachis or barbecues
* Raised devices
* Kegs of beers
* Non-folding furniture
* Handcarts or wheeled carts
* Glass containers of any type
` WHAT YOU CAN BRING
* Beer, wine and soda individually carried in plastic containers or regular-size cans. Bulk-carrying devices will not be permitted.
* Beach blankets
* Suntan lotion
* Baby carriages (with babies)
Highest payoffs for winners of the Preakness since $2 mutuel bets began in 1911 with winner, year and price:
Master Derby, 1975 $48.80
Coventry, 1925 $45.60-x
Display, 1926 $40.70
Bee Bee Bee, 1972 $39.40
Testamony, 1983 $31.00
Little Current, 1974 $28.20
Nellie Morse, 1924 $26.20
Polynesian, 1945 $26.00
Pillory, 1922 $24.30
Greek Money, 1962 $23.80