Trainer Richard Small concedes that Best Pal "is a terrific horse" coming off an excellent workout for the $700,000 Pimlico Special Saturday.
But that isn't scaring off Small, trainer of the local hope, Robert E. Meyerhoff's Valley Crossing.
"Valley is not all that shabby either," Small said yesterday. "And 15 pounds is a lot of break to get in the weights. If it was much lighter, we couldn't get anybody to ride him."
Best Pal, undefeated in four handicaps this year, will carry 126 pounds over the traditional Preakness distance, 1 3/16 miles. Valley Crossing has 111.
Small was undecided whether to point the son of Private Account toward the 1 1/8 -mile Early Times Dixie Handicap on the turf May 15 or the Special, but now he is leaning toward the latter.
"We've got the decent break in the weights, the other horses have to come in here and our horse is working really well," he said.
Valley Crossing went a mile handily in 1:39 3/5 over a track rated good April 28, then came back Sunday by going 7 furlongs in 1:26 1/5 and galloping out a mile in 1:38 3/5, good workout times.
"This horse is real versatile," said Small. "He likes turf, has won in the mud, and, if it comes up muddy, it might help us. Generally, California horses don't do well in the mud."
An off track is always a possibility this time of year at Pimlico.
Valley Crossing's last outing was a sharp second to Sunny Sunrise, beaten by a length and a quarter, in the Campbell Handicap April 12. Before that, he won both the Jennings Handicap and Native Dancer Handicap at Laurel.
"Best Pal worked great and Fly So Free went 57 and change [five furlongs] Saturday, real fast," said Small. "But Strike the Gold goes on sale and could get a different trainer just before the race."
However, Nick Zito will continue to train Strike the Gold after yesterday's sale of the horse.
(Strike the Gold became the first Kentucky Derby winner to be sold at auction. The 4-year-old was bought for $2.9 million at the Fasig-Tipton Thoroughbred Sales at Belmont Park. Winless in 12 starts since taking the Derby last spring, Strike the Gold was put on the auction block because of legal problems between B. Giles Brophy and partners William Condren and Joseph Cornacchia, who bought out Brophy's interest.)
"We'll just have to sit and see what else happens before the race, but right now we're leaning toward the Special," said Small.
Valley Crossing is 7-for-24 lifetime and has finished in the top three 17 times. He won the Pennsylvania Derby last September, carrying Andrea Seefeldt to the first win by a female rider in an American derby.
* Several Special contenders will arrive at Pimlico tomorrow.
Twilight Agenda, second top weight at 122 pounds, will come in from trainer D. Wayne Lukas' Kentucky division, and Fly So Free is to be vanned here from Belmont Park.
Ibero, trained by Hall of Famer Ron McAnally, is also due from California.
A final workout is scheduled tomorrow morning for Fly So Free, with trainer Scotty Schulhofer and jockey Jose Santos in attendance.
Strike the Gold, the 1991 Kentucky Derby winner, is due tonight or tomorrow morning.
* Juddmonte Farm's Defensive Play worked five furlongs in 1:01 at Aqueduct yesterday morning in preparation for the Special.
Trainer Robert Frankel said the 5-year-old by Fappiano galloped out six furlongs in 1:13 4/5 in his final major tuneup.
He comes into the race off a 4 1/4 -length victory in the Excelsior Handicap at Aqueduct April 25.
* Best Pal underwent a light routine under exercise rider Ruben Hernandez yesterday morning after walking in his shed row Monday.
The 4-year-old gelding has completed his serious work for the Special and has been over the track three times.
Trainer Gary Jones observed the exercise, then flew to New York. He will return tomorrow for Best Pal's gallop.
NOTES: Flight Luxe went to the front immediately and maintained the lead all the way to score by a length over By Descent in yesterday's featured allowance race over 1 1/16-miles. Larry Reynolds rode the second choice. . . . Kent Desormeaux had three victories yesterday to raise his total to four in two days. He won on Dantell (fourth), Curtin (fifth) and Medieval's Sister (ninth). . . . Desormeaux also won another decision after the sixth race, when he claimed foul against Andrea Seefeldt, who was aboard Dixieland Music, after being forced to check Cruel Cavalier in the stretch. The stewards allowed the objection and dropped Seefeldt's horse from second to fourth.