Prairie Bayou no hype, just 'very, very nice'

JOHN EISENBERG

May 16, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

If he played baseball, he would be a catcher. A good one. Tough. Consistent. Professional. Back there on his knees, grinding it out day after day, week after week, month after month. That's Prairie Bayou.

"He's the most honest 3-year-old of them all," said Tom Bohannan, trainer of the chestnut gelding who won the Preakness yesterday with one of the game, driving stretch runs that have become the horse's signature.

If he played football, he would be an offensive lineman. A good one. Silent. Underappreciated. Full of crunch on every play. When you're worried about playing the high-profile All-Pro next week, he kicks your rear this week. That's Prairie Bayou.

"A real tough, hard-trying horse," said owner John Ed Anthony.

Sure. You have seen him before, wearing different uniforms, playing different sports. Jimmy Connors. Joe Orsulak. Buck Williams. The ones who give you your money's worth. Every penny. The ones who don't call in sick. The ones who deliver again and again and again.

They might not have the most talent, but they have a lot.

They're not the best in history, but they're plenty good.

"What do you think of your horse?" someone asked Bohannan.

He paused.

"He's a very, very, very nice horse," the trainer said.

Not a super horse, no. Not a wonder horse, no. Bohannan wasn't about to say that. This is not the superstar that racing needs so badly as attendance and handles and foal crops slip and the sport searches for a kick-start.

He is not Arazi, all hype and no substance. He is the opposite. No hype. All substance. The consummate pro. He can flat-out run. He can fatten your wallet at the betting window. He doesn't need excuses. He keeps going, and going, and going. . . .

Yesterday, he came out of the far turn a length behind surprising Cherokee Run. Personal Hope was on the inside. It was no contest. Prairie Bayou blew past them all into the lead, quickly stretched the margin out to a length, and held off Cherokee Run.

"And he was just playing cat and mouse [with Cherokee Run] at the end," jockey Mike Smith said. "He had plenty of run left. It was a terrific performance. He took me wherever I wanted to go."

And it's suddenly all so clear, isn't it? Prairie Bayou may not be a horse for the ages, but he's certainly the best 3-year-old of 1993. Better than Sea Hero, the Kentucky Derby winner. Better than Personal Hope, the California speedball. Better than them all.

Check out the numbers: In Prairie Bayou's seven races this year, hehas five firsts and two seconds. Three graded-stakes wins. No clunkers that need explaining. He has won the Jim Beam and the Blue Grass and the Preakness. He has run second in the Derby. That's his clunker. Second in the Kentucky Derby.

None of the others in the class even begin to compare. Sea Hero was winless in '93 until Churchill Downs. Personal Hope has never won two stakes races in a row. It's that kind of year. No breathtaking quality. But a "very, very, very nice horse" at the top.

"There's nothing that an owner or trainer wants more than anything," Bohannan said, "than an honest horse that tries hard every time."

His background is fittingly unpretentious. He was just another horse in Anthony's vast Loblolly barn at the beginning of the year. He had been gelded, but just to keep his size down. As a 2-year-old, he had won two of four starts and finished in the money three times. He was decent, but nothing special. Nothing special at all.

"This was not a horse that knocked you out [early on] saying 'I'm a champion,' " Anthony said.

He just kept improving in training, though, as winter turned into spring. Bohannan originally thought there were better Derby contenders in his barn, but one by one they fell away, injured or disappointing. Finally, it was clear which horse was best.

Now, it's as clear as the brilliant blue sky over Pimlico yesterday. Prairie Bayou is a name that's going to be around on the tote board, around for a while, health permitting. He's a gelding, so he won't be heading off to stud. He'll be coming back for more. Coming back and coming back and coming back . . .

"I hope he's around as long as John Henry," Anthony said, "and eclipses some of John Henry's records."

That's Prairie Bayou. If he were a ballplayer, he wouldn't complain about his contract. He wouldn't whine about playing time. He would hit the cutoff man. He would get the bunt down. They would love him in the bleachers. They always love an honest day's work in the bleachers.

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