Preakness gods

James M. Merritt

May 15, 1992|By James M. Merritt

SATURDAY, May 9, 1931, was going to be an important day for my maternal grandfather. It would be his 75th birthday and the 56th anniversary of the Preakness.

If ever a man lived by the Golden Rule, it was Grandpa. Successful in business, revered by his large family, he was never without a project to help someone in need. And he loved to go to the races.

So when we met that day at a packed Pimlico, and he unveiled his current plan, I was astounded. It seemed that he had raised a purse to help a young man with a growing family who had been laid off and was about to lose his home. The stake had grown to $300, a princely sum in those Depression days. Now he intended to bet the whole amount on his selection in the Preakness and give all the winnings to the young husband who, thank the Lord, was ignorant of the plan.

When I objected, Gramps explained, "Listen, Jimmy, I grew up with this race and I've learned that it is watched over by those I call the Preakness gods, as befits the greatest race for 3-year-olds in the country. They protect the integrity of the contest and see that the outcome benefits the most deserving.

"This is one of the finest fields I've seen in the Preakness. [C.V.] Whitney and his aunt are trying to make it a family affair with Equipoise and Twenty Grand. The crowd'll undecided as to which to make the favorite, so they'll both be less than 2-to-1. Those odds don't appeal to me.

"But [A.C.] Bostwick, who knows horses from mane to tail, has an entry named Mate who won the Walden here last year and loves this track. He'll be at least 4-to-1, and he's my choice." (Bostwick was a great steeplechase rider.)

"Grandpa," I remonstrated, "Equipoise and Twenty Grand are going to be hall-of-fame horses. Sonny Workman [who was on Equipoise when he won the 1930 Pimlico Futurity] said he'd never come down a homestretch anywhere as fast as he did that day . . ."

"Keep quiet!" Gramps ordered, "and put this on Mate's nose." He handed me the stake money plus $50 for his own bet. I put down the bet after adding $10 of my own just to keep from being laughed at all the way home.

The field was sent off and a horse named Clock Tower took over the lead as they went into the clubhouse turn. Here there was a lot of race riding, and Charley Kurtsinger on Twenty Grand did not get the best of it. His horse was bumped and knocked off stride. Equipoise, who had swerved at the start, ran into the jam, too, and was never a factor thereafter.

Mate, clear of trouble, settled into a contending position going down the backstretch. Coming around the far turn, his jockey, George Ellis, put him to a drive so that when he entered the homestretch he had a two-length advantage over the erstwhile leaders, Clock Tower and Ladder. The game Twenty Grand had recovered and was making a move, too, but, at the head of the stretch he was blocked by, of all horses, his stablemate, Surf Board, who was stopping badly. However, under Kurtsinger's flailing whip he gamely took after the leader again.

When Mate passed the 16th pole and it was clear that Twenty Grand was not going to catch him, Gramps began shouting in triumph, and I had no difficulty joining him.

Mate's winning margin was 1 1/2 lengths. His time of 1.59 equaled the stake's record, and he paid $10.20. His winner's share of the purse was $48,225, and Twenty Grand got $5,000 for his plucky effort.

"Now do you think there are no Preakness gods?" Gramps yelled. "Go get the money!"

I felt like Bet-A-Million Gates with all those C-notes in my pocket, 15 of which, I learned later, kept the young family going until the father got a job.

I still thought Grandpa's belief in Preakness divinity was pure fantasy until the following Saturday when Twenty Grand won the Kentucky Derby. (The Preakness didn't become the middle jewel of the Triple Crown until the following year, 1932.) Mate was third, beaten by five lengths. Twenty Grand went on to victory in the Belmont Stakes two weeks later.

This was the last Preakness for Gramps. Later that year he was taken suddenly and was gone in a week. He hadn't been a church-goer, but what a crowd at his funeral! Old parishioners said it was even larger than the one at the church's dedication in 1898.

James M. Merritt has been attending Preaknesses for much of

the century.

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