There's no easy pick for this Preakness 116th Preakness


May 18, 1991|By MIKE LITTWIN

D. Wayne Lukas whistles to his horse, Corporate Report. I don't know what it does for the horse, but every dog at Pimlico was tugging at Lukas' pants leg.

This is not particularly strange behavior. Maybe the whistling calms the horse. Maybe Lukas whistles tunes of encouragement, say, the theme from the Alpo commercial. Anyway, it's the kind of insider information I knew you'd want as we prepare for the Preakness.

How do you bet this one?

You do not, of course, bet the Derby winner, Strike the Gold. The Derby winner, for the past 11 years at least, has automatically been a bum, except for the three who actually won the Preakness, who then automatically became super horses.

There's no secret here. For the past 11 years, since Spectacular BTC Bid, the Derby favorite has lost, meaning all the experts had to scramble to figure out what happened. The usual (also, easy) interpretation was that the winner was a fluke.

And Strike the Gold? If the horseshoe fits. One well-known writer said he was the worst Derby winner in a decade.

Nick Zito, who trains Strike the Gold, has spent the past two weeks defending his horse against all critics and said if anyone discredited his horse, he would never speak to him. So, if you owe Zito money, tell him, "I wouldn't put that horse on a milk wagon," and you'll never hear from him again.

Meanwhile, he keeps talking.

Zito on the race: "You'll be talking to me at the Belmont. Believe me."

Zito on the competition: "Doesn't matter. Strike the Gold is going to be in the race, in case I didn't mention it."

In any case, Strike the Gold has failed to strike anyone's imagination. (Uh oh. Nick, only kidding.) People are looking for someone else to bet on. Anyone else. Unless, of course, you're of a religious bent. When Strike the Gold won the Derby, Zito was asked how he felt. He said: "For I moment, I thought God was inviting me into his living room."

If Strike the Gold wins today, maybe Zito can see the den.

You could bet on Hansel, who was the Derby favorite and finished 10th. But I wouldn't. The horse just got to town last Wednesday after a 12-hour van ride from suburban Chicago. Who was the horse's travel agent? Louisville to Baltimore via Chicago? Maybe Hansel was trying to follow bread crumbs.

Actually, it was just that Hansel's handlers weren't sure if the horse was ready to try it again so soon after the Derby. It took a week to make up their minds.

"Maybe it was a little bold way to go," trainer Frank Brothers said. "But I have faith in my horse. If he runs like he's capable of doing, he can compete with these horses."

What went wrong in Louisville?

"I've been asking [Hansel] for 10 days," Brothers said. "He won't tell me."

Did he try whistling?

You could bet Mane Minister, who finished a surprise third at the Derby. You could bet Best Pal, who is a gelding and therefore doesn't have much to live for except racing. You could bet Honor Grades, the Magic-Gretzky-Bruce McNall horse. You can bet Corporate Report, Lukas' horse, because, well, he's Lukas' horse and Lukas (as usual) has a feeling. You can bet Whadjathink, but not for more than $2.

That leaves Olympio, the "fresh" horse. When I want to keep something fresh, I use a Zip-loc bag. They're cheap, they're handy and they're freezer-proof, but even the jumbos, I can see, are a little on the small size for an actual horse. So the way his handlers kept Olympio fresh for the Preakness was to have him skip the Kentucky Derby.

This is an interesting strategy. Skip the Derby, huh? Skip the Olympics and rest up for the Pam Am Games? Skip a date with Kim Basinger to rest up for bowling night?

This is no knock at the Preakness, a wonderful race. But the Derby is the Super Bowl, it's Wimbledon, it's Christmas morning. It's the one race that everyone cares about, and when you get a horse that might win it, you go for it, right?

Olympio couldn't -- because he was tired. He got tired after winning the Arkansas Derby. The first hint was when they saw him yawning. He looked like the horse in "Cat Ballou."

Olympio's owner, Verne Winchell, used to be president of Denny's, the original 24-hour restaurant, to use the term loosely. Maybe he was the one who kept the horse out too late. Maybe they overslept the Derby entry deadline.

You can see the scene: "We're late? What do you have left? Baltimore? Good town, we'll take it."

And so Olympio comes to the Preakness rested and will probably be the favorite.

D. Wayne Lukas had a thought: "You don't point for this race. It's a great race. But if you're going to point for one, you point for the Derby."

Not that Hall of Fame trainer Ron McAnally doesn't know as much. If his horse wasn't ready for the Derby, he wasn't ready. And, after his strong showing at the Arkansas Derby, he looks like the best horse here. Maybe he'll get the last two parts of the Triple Crown. It's not a bad bet. But you just wonder how a horse that good, if he is that good, could miss the first one.

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