The waiting is over Tightly bunched field of 8 expected as Strike the Gold seeks 2nd jewel 116th Preakness

May 18, 1991|By Marty McGee

Let's do it.

After a week marked by a cardboard queen, blue-and-pink ravioli, hundreds of questions and nearly as many answers, predictions and retractions, the eight Preakness horses and their connections get to just do it.

Along with an expected crowd of 85,000-plus, the participants are ready for today's 116th Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course.

The 1 3/16-mile classic, second jewel of the Triple Crown, is being billed as a stiff test for Kentucky Derby champion Strike the Gold. He faces four horses who finished behind him at Churchill Downs -- Best Pal, Mane Minister, Corporate Report and Hansel -- but his closest opponent in the odds will be Olympio, who skipped the Derby to run in the Preakness.

"I saw Joe [De Francis, Pimlico president] in Kentucky and told him, 'I'm saving the best for you,' " Ron McAnally, trainer of Olympio, said at the track's annual Alibi Breakfast yesterday morning.

Nick Zito, trainer of Strike the Gold, said he has enjoyed Preakness week, including posing with a cardboard replica of Queen Elizabeth II and being honored with colorful ravioli at Vellegia's in Little Italy. Blue and pink are the colors of the silks for Strike the Gold's owners, Giles Brophy, William Condren and Joseph Cornacchia.

But Zito has not particularly enjoyed the skepticism that has greeted his colt. After Strike the Gold blew out a quarter-mile yesterday morning in 24 seconds, Zito said: "There is only one Kentucky Derby champion. Say what you want about me, but don't knock the horse."

Strike the Gold, 3-for-8 lifetime, won the Derby two weeks ago with a wide rally, finishing nearly two lengths ahead of Best Pal.

"He looks better than he did before the Derby," Brophy said of the son of Alydar. "We're hoping we don't get as difficult a trip. We'll see what happens."

Olympio, meanwhile, was stabled at Churchill Downs during Derby week, but McAnally opted to skip the race, deciding it was too close to the Arkansas Derby, which Olympio won with an unusual rally two weeks before.

In the Arkansas Derby, the colt's third straight victory and fifth from eight career starts, Olympio pressed the early pace, fell back, then came again to win by 2 1/2 lengths.

Olympio also blew out a quarter-mile yesterday morning, in 23 3/5 seconds.

Best Pal, expected to be a solid third choice, will attempt to become the first gelding to win the Preakness since Holiday in 1914. He would be the second straight Derby runner-up to win the race, following Summer Squall last year, but just the second in 31 runnings to do it.

Chris Antley will ride Strike the Gold, Gary Stevens will be on Best Pal, and Eddie Delahoussaye will be on Olympio.

The other five horses seek an upset.

Honor Grades and Whadjathink, neither of whom started in the Derby, probably will be the longest shots. Honor Grades has the closest Maryland connection -- his trainer, Rodney Rash, 31, grew up in Woodbine in Carroll County before leaving as a teen-ager to become an assistant to Hall of Fame trainer Charlie Whittingham in California.

Mike Whittingham, Charlie's son, will saddle Whadjathink, a colt making his first start outside California.

Whadjathink "has trained very well in the last few weeks," Whittingham said. "His good races have been very impressive. He sits just off the pace, then makes his move on the backside."

Tactics and pace are viewed as especially critical in today's race. If the field runs to form, the early stages should set up this way: Corporate Report in front, with Hansel, Olympio, Best Pal and Mane Minister chasing; then, Strike the Gold, Honor Grades and Whadjathink.

"I think Corporate Report will have the lead," said Ian Jory, trainer of Best Pal, "and Hansel and Mane Minister right there. Olympio could be up there, but you never know with Eddie Delahoussaye. I think the whole field will be within five lengths of each other early.

"I'd like to see my horse make a big move on the [final] turn, because he's very good on sharp turns, and that's to our advantage."

Hansel, the last horse to arrive at Pimlico for the race, finished 10th as the favorite in the Derby, marking the 12th straight year that the betting choice has lost.

Favorites in the Preakness in recent years have fared only marginally better; just one has won in the past nine runnings. That was Alysheba, also a son of Alydar, in 1987.

Whether Strike the Gold is the favorite over Olympio apparently does not really concern Zito. All he wants is a Preakness victory for his horse -- and respect.

"What [critics] are doing, they're going to be exposed," said Zito. "Bad will always humble to good. The game is bigger than all of us."

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