Barring any unexpected setbacks, Best Pal is set to run in the $700,000 Pimlico Special on Saturday after a workout yesterday morning that allayed trainer Gary Jones' doubts about the horse's liking for the racing surface.
"Now he probably won't win, and I don't have any excuses," Jones said, jokingly, after Best Pal went six furlongs in 1 minute, 12 seconds and galloped out a mile in 1:40 1/5 and 1 1/8 miles in 1:54 with jockey Kent Desormeaux aboard.
Jones clocked the final furlong in 12 seconds and said he "really liked the way he finished. It was perfect."
Desormeaux said: "Generally, he's real lazy, laid back, as far as working goes. You usually have to tap him to get him interested. But today he wanted to work."
Best Pal is undefeated during his 4-year-old campaign, but in his only race at Pimlico, he was beaten 11 lengths while finishing fifth to Hansel in last year's Preakness. In 22 lifetime starts, he finished worse than third only three times.
"That race was too bad to believe," Jones said of the Preakness. "So, you think it's got to be the surface. But the wind blew all night long and the track was fairly dry today.
"That [a dry track] is what I was concerned about. If it gets muddy, I think he'll handle it."
Desormeaux said the Golden Eagle Farm's gelding "only worked this well once -- before the million-dollar race. And he was really good that day."
That was before the Santa Anita Handicap on March 7 when Best Pal breezed to a 5 1/2 -length victory in 1:59 over 1 1/4 miles.
"It's easy for me to see the difference in him coming in for the work this time," said Jones, who was not overly enthusiastic a week ago, when Best Pal went five-eighths in 1:01 1/5.
"He looked a little light the last time, but now he looks really good to me. I think he needed some time to get back to himself after that trip from Arkansas.
"Now, I'm here to stay for the rest of the week. We're going to go if he's all right tomorrow."
Jones is based on the Southern California circuit, which has been disrupted by the civil disturbances in Los Angeles and a boycott of the entry box by horsemen.
The only thing that could upset the plans is an injury, such as the bruised hoof that knocked A.P. Indy out of the Kentucky Derby.
"You see something like that, and it makes you sweat all the while," Jones said. "You've got to feel for that group."
Best Pal is scheduled to be tested by seven rivals over the 1 3/16-mile Special. He is top-weighted at 126 pounds, 4 more than Twilight Agenda, who has chased him the past two races, finishing second in the Santa Anita Derby and third in the Oaklawn Handicap.
The field for the fourth leg of the American Championship Racing Series also includes Strike The Gold, the 1991 Kentucky Derby winner, Fly So Free and Defensive Play, an impressive victor in the Excelsior at Aqueduct on April 25.
Best Pal appears ready. Jones' worries about the big horse "running down" because of an inability to get hold of the track have been eased.
* New York invader Toots La Mae survived a rocky start and some drifting in the lane for a 3 3/4 -length victory in the $40,000 Miss Preakness Stakes yesterday.
She rallied from last in a six-horse field to take over rounding the final turn and was going away under jockey Joe Bravo, who kept her out of trouble.
"She just outclassed them down the lane," said Bravo of a filly that had difficulty adjusting to the gate in her first two starts, but is 3-for-4 since.
"A horse came out today and bothered her," trainer Mark Reid said. "But she was able to regain her composure and go on about her business."
Missy White Oak, with Desormeaux up, held off the closing Jazzy One for the place.
NOTES: Jockey Thomas Turner has been suspended for seven days for allowing his mount, Red Ice, to impede Jadeeda through the stretch in Saturday's 13th race. Red Ice was disqualified from second to fourth. . . . Twelve fillies and mares have been nominated for the Maryland Million Handicap, a $25,000 secondary feature on the day of the Pimlico Special. Included are Boxwood, winner of four straight, Leopard Lily, Crown And Anchor and Mary's Revenge. . . . Desormeaux won his first race back at a price ($13.40) with Sun Baeder in the third, then was bet heavily on first-time starter National Account in the seventh. The horse ran third.