Preakness field runs fast, deep

May 17, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

You knew the Preakness had gotten lucky when Kenny Smith put a sly smile on his face yesterday morning at Pimlico.

"I promise you," said Smith, the trainer of a Preakness horse named Silver Goblin, "they will know we were here."

You knew the Preakness had gotten lucky when Hugh Robertson stood on the grass behind the stakes barn grazing his horse and shaking his head.

"It's kind of a bad break," said Robertson, the trainer of Polar Expedition, "getting a good horse in a year like this. A year when it's so hard to make a dent."

You knew the Preakness had gotten lucky this year when Nick Zito, the trainer of the Kentucky Derby winner, Go For Gin, sat there trying to explain why he was at a disadvantage.

"There's fresh horses coming in from everywhere," Nicky Z said. "And they're good horses, too."

This was a year when the Preakness could have gone as flat as DTC the Orioles did in Minnesota. The elimination of the $1 million Triple Crown bonus has made it easier for owners and trainers to find reasons not to run. Three of the four betting favorites from the Kentucky Derby aren't entered, a happenstance that normally would have gutted much of the substance from the race.

Yet Saturday's 119th running still appears to have plenty of guts -- and an abundance of speed. This year's crop of top 3-year-olds is so deep that the Preakness can more or less survive the loss of Holy Bull, Brocco and Strodes Creek.

"It's a great crop this year," said former Pimlico general manager Chick Lang, now doing his talking for WBAL. "The field for the Kentucky Derby was the strongest and deepest since 1957, which was Iron Liege, Gallant Man and Bold Ruler. It was even stronger than Secretariat's year. There's just a ton of quality this year."

Sure, the absence of several major players succeeds in diminishing Saturday's race. And, sure, the Preakness being what it is, 80,000 fans and ABC's cameras would show up even if ostriches were running. The quality of the field is not important to most fans, who would take a three-legged winner as long as they bet him.

But the point is this: There is still plenty of heft to this edition of the Preakness, thanks primarily to a batch of speedy horses that didn't run in the Derby.

"It looks like there's a lot of horses that can run," trainer Charlie Whittingham said.

Whittingham elected to save Derby runner-up Strodes Creek for the Belmont, but he will run Numerous, the Derby Trial winner, in the Preakness. Strodes Creek is a star in the making who probably would be running if Chrysler still were offering $1 million to the horse with the highest collective finish in the three Triple Crown races -- "a million dollars makes you change your mind," Whittingham said. But Numerous is no piker.

"I think the horses to beat are Numerous and [third-place Derby finisher] Blumin Affair," Zito said the other day.

Then there is Silver Goblin, a gray gelding with six wins in nine starts and as much natural speed as any Preakness horse in years. He worked six furlongs Sunday in the kind of time that could win a stakes race, and was still so peppy yesterday that Smith had to take him back out to the track. Look for him as the "smart" bettor's play.

Of course, Hugh Robertson might argue that Silver Goblin is no faster than his horse, Polar Expedition, who has won almost $700,000, finished out of the money only once, and last month won the Jim Beam Stakes, a major prep won by Preakness winners Summer Squall and Hansel.

"He's a good, solid horse," Robertson said. "The [speed-favoring] Preakness suits him better. With the way the top ones have been beating each other, we'll see what happens."

We might just see all this speed set up the race perfectly for fast-finishing Concern, the Maryland-based colt who came from 15 lengths off the pace to win the Arkansas Derby in his last start. It could happen.

"Personally," Zito said, "I think Jack [Van Berg, trainer of Blumin Affair] and I are at a disadvantage against these other horses."

That's a hard one to prove. It's been 11 years since a horse won the Preakness after not running in the Derby. As a general rule, horses that don't run in the Derby are a notch below those that do. Without Holy Bull, Brocco and Strodes Creek, Go For Gin stands out as the horse who has proved he can cover the Preakness distance.

But "Go For Gin is no superstar," Zito admitted yesterday, and it wouldn't be a shock if one of these "new" horses took the same step up that Deputed Testamony did when he won the Preakness in 1983.

"I think we have the best horse," Zito said, "but we're going to need a little luck. It's a game of luck, after all."

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