Behind scenes, crew is a winner, wire-to-wire

May 17, 1992|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

Eric Blind screamed out the names yesterday, calling for Donny and Shaver and Gary and Scott and 10 other men in mud-caked boots and tan pants and white windbreakers who scrambled in front of the horses as the big crowd poured noise into this one corner of the track.

It was the 10th race. A perfect day in the starting gate at Pimlico.

Blind, the head starter, a man who grew up following his father on a racing circuit from New Orleans to Chicago, was going over the program, reminding himself that Big Sur could get jittery in the start, and that Careful Gesture would just as soon kick a man as fly out of the gate. He doesn't handle the animals, anymore, but he can show you the scars of his profession -- a torn up knee, dislocated shoulder, a lip torn off by some nasty beast named Last Stone.

"Horses are a lot like people, you know. Each one has a personality," Blind would say. "Some, you've got to manhandle. Some, you have to ease them in. You know, this isn't about walking up in a stand and pushing a button."

The crew was working hard, now. No more laughing about the topless women they'd seen in the infield, or the Early Times balloon that floated in the fog like some drunken Mickey Mouse at a Thanksgiving Day parade. Danny Fitchett, the assistant starter, took hold of the Derby winner, admitting later that even after 34 years at the track, this day "always made him a little uptight." But he coaxed Lil E. Tee into the gate and then wedged himself against a metal railing.

For a split second everyone was frozen. And then Blind, a middle-aged guy dressed in a yellow jacket, standing on a tattered green wooden platform, grabbed something that looked like a two foot clothes' pin and pushed the ends together.

I= The gates opened. The crowd roared. The Preakness was on.

*

"You never hear the crowd," Gary Stevens said.

All around him there was a sound and a fury that only a Triple Crown race can produce. The grandstand was shaking and the kids in the infield were surging to the wire fences and the 14 horses were rumbling through the metal gates. Stevens just looked straight ahead, tried to break cleanly in a charge down a narrow stretch of loam.

"All you can hear are the other jockeys, the other horses," Stevens said.

He was riding Casual Lies, the horse with this fabulous owner, Shelley Riley, who had rolled out one-liners like a vintage Carson monologue. But there was no joking for Stevens. He was trying to get himself into the race, ignoring the early speed of Speakerphone, remaining calm when Alydeed shot out of nowhere to the head of the pack.

"Down the back side, I didn't like my chances at all," he said. "The horse didn't like the track, didn't like the dirt hitting him in the face."

But Stevens saw an opening and reached for it going around the final turn. Tried to go inside Alydeed while Pine Bluff came roaring from the outside.

"Both our horses fired big," he said. "At the head of the stretch it seemed like I had a shot of winning. But Pine Bluff just ran by me."

He wouldn't win. Third-place was fine.

"Can't be disappointed," he said. "The horse is a tiger. Hasn't been worse than third. That's a people's kind of horse."

*

Scott Savin was in the owner's box. Couldn't see a thing. Twenty people on chairs in front of him. Television cameras all around. Somewhere down on the track was his horse, the one with the bad foot, Technology.

"Came here at 5:30 this morning, baby-sat the horse," he said. "I really care about this. What are the chances of running in a Preakness, 10,000 to 1?"

He's 31. The game is in his blood. His grandfather once raced Mr. Prospector.

"I love this," he said.

tTC He got a peak at the scoreboard, and saw his horse was fourth. Finally, the field came down the stretch as if it had been propelled by a slingshot.

"I could see we weren't in the first group," he said. "We were sixth."

Later, Savin would talk to his trainer Sonny Hine, who kept screaming that the horse was bumped.

"You would at least like to feel that you had an even chance to win," Savin said. "But when it goes wrong, it's tough. This isn't like heavyweight boxing where if you lose, you can come back. There will never be another Preakness for this horse."

*

Under the grandstand, families were camped out on lawn chairs, and the linoleum floor was caked with grime and losing tickets. The air was so hot and humid you felt like you could reach out and touch it. The $2 bettors pressed against the window. Two minutes earlier, they were cheering for Hammer. Then, they were screaming numbers.

Bill White of Baltimore had the 5, Big Sur. But with each stride he saw the 4, Pine Bluff was rushing hard, passing the 12, Alydeed. He wasn't angry. In fact, few were. When Pine Bluff won, there wasn't so much a roar, as there was a whimper.

9- "Did anyone have that horse?" White said.

*

An hour after the race, the only sign of the winner was in the arms of Frank Vranish, a security guard. He was standing guard by a stall at the Stakes Barn, holding the Preakness winner's blanket, waiting for Pine Bluff to return from a drug test.

Vranish reported to work at 4 a.m., running errands, making sure everything was in place at the winner's circle. He was dressed in a freshly-pressed blue uniform, with a gold badge on his left lapel and his cap. His hands were covered by white gloves.

Of all the thousands who had come to Pimlico, Vranish ended up with the best view of the finish. He was at the rail, waiting to see which horse he would accompany to the winner's circle. Pine Bluff flashed by.

"Terrific race," he said. "When you get to the finish first, it's always a terrific race."

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