Preakness memories are thoroughbreds for certain

John Steadman

May 15, 1992|By John Steadman

Keepsake memories of Preaknesses past are precious heirlooms, secure in the storehouse of the mind, ready for instant and glorious recall. Some of what happened in all those eventful yesteryears comes flowing into focus and the Preakness, once more, is off and running.

"Maryland My Maryland," the state anthem, will fill the air with soothing sounds. A blanket of hot-house daisies, with shoe black dabbed on their passive faces to create facsimiles of black-eyed Susans, is about to be draped across the withers of the winner.

And the infield cupola, to be painted only minutes after the result flashes on the tote board, will reflect the colors of yet another triumphant owner. The Preakness has its own characteristics, eccentricities and folk lore that contribute to its individuality, which is why it has become a jewel of the American scene for 117 years and counting.

The Preakness is as much a part of old Baltimore as row houses with white stoops, monuments to heroes (from Columbus to Tommy D'Alesandro Jr.) and pitchers of beer surrounded by steamed crabs piled on yesterday's newspapers. So much for notable nostalgia.

All of the racing splendor signifies a rite of spring, just as it is for May processions, planting flowers and washing windows. A convincing reminder that the winter slumber for all of us is over. Yes, a famous horse race to commemorate and perpetuate a tradition that originated more than a century ago in an era of carriages, parasols and little girl curtsies.

Where else can an event boast of a trophy, the elegant Woodlawn Vase, crafted by Tiffany & Co., that is valued at $1 million, the richest award in all of sports, and have a past that saw it buried during the Civil War to hide it from soldiers who may have melted it into shot?

It's a classic named for a horse, the ill-fated Preakness, who won the first stakes race held at Pimlico, in 1870, and then, as he grew into an elder statesman, was sold to English interests. And it was there that the Duke of Hamilton, who became irate, shot Preakness in what was an ignominious ending to an illustrious career. Somebody should have taken out the Duke to square the account. But Preakness didn't die in vain; hence the Preakness Stakes.

Oh, how the memories, swirling in moving montage, bring back such momentous names as Man o' War, the Maryland-bred Challedon, who inspired Ogden Nash to write a poem, "O Challedon, O Challedon"; Citation, Gallant Fox, Omaha, War Admiral, Whirlaway, Native Dancer, Secretariat, Spectacular Bid, Affirmed and Tank's Prospect, named for a former football player and scout, Paul "Tank" Younger. Indeed Tank's Prospect was so exceptional he holds Pimlico's record for the 1 3/16th mile distance with a time of 1:53 2/5ths.

And, as a historical reminder, the last filly to win was Nellie Morse, in 1920, as she bested 14 colts on a sloppy track. Only nine times since then has a filly appeared in the Preakness, with the best showing produced by Genuine Risk, who was second in 1980 and hollered "foul." The result wasn't official until 19 days later, after extensive hearings by the Maryland Racing Commission concluded the original finish was valid.

Another nugget from the past is it's necessary to throw back the pages of the record book to 1914 to locate the last gelding to win, whose name was Holiday. So geldings and fillies have had their difficulties, despite equal opportunities for all gender of horse.

What has been the best of all Preakness races? It's subjective, of course, and there's no man or woman alive, not even the resident historians, George Mohr and Joe Kelly, both with time capsule memories, who can supply the answers. As a personal opinion, the nomination is of late vintage, 1989, when Sunday Silence and Easy Goer ran as "one" coming off the final turn and battled for every stride through the stretch. An epic to be treasured.

The difference at the end was a nose, the closest finish in Preakness annals. It also was the last Preakness that Frank De Francis, innovative president of Pimlico, was to see. He died three months later but not before writing a letter to a Baltimore sports writer commenting on his description of what he, too, believed was the most extraordinary Preakness of them all.

The Preakness, with more than a century of progress behind it, exemplifies all that's good about the beauty of the horse and a sport that allows men and women to breed and race them. A Maryland hallmark. A racing spectacular. Viable for the ages.

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