The Preakness gods had a hand in this one

James M. Merritt

May 14, 1993|By James M. Merritt

AS SOON as I saw Joe coming down his front steps I knew that, barring a miracle, this would be our last Preakness together. He had been facing the cancer bravely, but now, pallid as milk, he had lost his appetite and his gait was unsteady.

It was May 13, 1939, a cool, miserable day with leaking skies and no promise of sun. As we drove to Pimlico, I told Joe I had two grandstand seats near the finish line, so all he had to do was get settled and I would take things from there.

"I won't be a burden, Jim," he said, "because I'm only gonna make one bet. I've got a C-note in my pocket to bet on Challedon in the big race. I don't care if he goes to 50-to-1. I just want to have a good bet on a Maryland horse winning the Preakness if it's the last thing I do . . ."

I listened in dismay because all the experts had conceded the race to Johnstown, a colt they were hailing as the "horse of the century." According to them, the only thing to be decided today was Johnstown's margin of victory. Two weeks before, this horse had won the Kentucky Derby by a city block over Challedon for his seventh straight career victory.

Johnstown was trained by Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, the legendary "Mr. Fifty," for William Woodward's Belair Stud. Sunny Jim's other entry in the race was the Wheatley Stable's Gilded Knight, who also had beaten Challedon badly in the Chesapeake Stakes at Havre de Grace three weeks before the derby.

When I pointed this out to Joe, he reminded me he'd been brought up in Frederick County close to the farm near Walkersville where Challedon had been bred from Challenger II, an English stallion, and Laura Gal.

"I feel very close to this horse, Jim," Joe said, "and I'm not going to desert him now. Besides, he had a fine 2-year-old season, and I just feel like he is going to start winning again today."

All through the early races Joe remained solemnly in his seat while I bet on horses that could hardly stand up in the mud, let alone run in it. I was soon feeling as miserable as the weather.

When time came to bet the Preakness, Joe pressed the hundred-dollar bill in my hand and said that if I did not go along with him on Challedon, I would regret it to my last day. He spoke with such conviction I felt that I would not only be sorry but also punished if I bet against the Maryland horse. The odds on Johnstown had dropped to 1-to-5, while Maryland money had brought Challedon down from 10-to-1 to 6-to-1.

The concourse was a writhing sea of umbrellas as the horses paraded in the steady rain. There were only six in the field because several entries had been scared off by Johnstown and the rain. At the gate, the start was delayed five minutes by the fractious Volitant.

Finally they were off, and as they came splashing down the stretch the first time Johnstown, as expected, took the lead. Gilded Knight went right along with him, while Challedon trailed in fifth place. Down the backstretch Johnstown maintained a half-length lead over Gilded Knight, and as they went into the far turn I yelled that the favorite sure wasn't running like a 1-to-5 shot!

I felt a warm surge of hope when Gilded Knight drew even going around the turn and Challedon moved up to third. As they swung into the stretch, the three horses were head and head, Challedon on the outside. Under Jockey George Seabo's urging, the Marylander began to pull away, and when he reached the sixteenth pole I glanced at Joe. He was yelling at the top of his lungs and thrusting out his arms in time with Challedon's monstrous strides as the horse went across the line a length and a half ahead of Gilded Knight. Volitant was third, and Johnstown struggled in fifth, beating only Ciencia, Max Hirsh's filly.

Johnstown, still the favorite, won the Belmont three weeks later, and Challedon, skipping that race, went on to win enough important stakes to be voted "horse of the year."

Challedon's time for the Preakness was a creditable 1.56 and three-fifths, and he paid $14.40, which enabled me to collect the handsome sum of $720 for Joe. I had bet enough on the winner to get well for the day, but my greatest reward was seeing the change in my old friend.

All the way home he was bubbling, "What a race! . . . I told you it would be Challedon . . . Did you see how he put those big-shot favorites away in the stretch? . . . I tell you it's a great day for Maryland!"

And, when we reached his home: "Thanks, Jim. You know what? I'm as hungry as a bear in springtime."

As I watched him bound up his steps like a 10-year-old, it dawned on me there is no malady of mortal flesh that cannot be relieved by winning a good bet on a good horse at a good price.

And then I thought: Maybe those Preakness gods some folks swear by had a hand in this.

James M. Merritt writes from Baltimore.

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