A Preakness for Mary

May 20, 1994|By James M. Merritt

IN the early 1930s, Head Play had something in common with the 1994 Kentucky Derby troublemaker Ulises, who held up the race when he refused to enter the starting gate.

In 1930, the electric gate was brand new, and during his schooling, Head Play simply refused to be led into the machine. In fact, he detested the contraption so much that he tried to kick it to pieces every time he got within reach.

To protect both horse and machine, starter Jim Milton ordered Head Play placed outside the gate when he got to the races in 1932. In spite of this self-imposed handicap, the colt had a respectable season as a 2-year-old, winning five of 12 starts.

His owner and trainer was ex-jockey Willie Crump, who had bought the son of My Play, a brother of Man O' War, for $500. When, in 1933, Head Play began to shine in stakes races, Crump nominated him for the Kentucky Derby and was able to sell him on the eve of the race for $30,000.

And he would have won the derby if his jockey, Herb Fisher, and Don Meade, riding Col. E.R. Bradley's Broker's Tip, had not concentrated on slashing each other instead of their mounts from the eighth pole home. Broker's Tip, a maiden, was declared the winner by a head. The stewards, refusing Fisher's foul claim, let the result stand, but both riders were suspended for 10 days, making them ineligible for the Preakness. This resulted in Charles Kurtsinger riding Head Play and J. Smith riding Broker's Tip in the Baltimore renewal of the rivalry.

In those days, I was in the produce commission business at old Marsh Market and seldom missed a day when the horses came to Pimlico. I generally attended with a good customer, Murray Kirkwood, the city's busiest purveyor of fruits and vegetables to the institutional and steamship trade.

Murray had been telling me about his daughter, who was set to graduate from Goucher "10 lengths ahead of her class" but who nevertheless had a problem. She wanted to be an investigative pharmacologist in a medical research foundation. It seems that the graduate school whose doctorate would guarantee her the position was a strict Yankee institution that frowned on female applicants. Her Goucher friends had assured her that, even if she were accepted, the students there, with the silent consent ++ of a hidebound faculty, would place her under unbearable mental harassment. So she had decided to take the easy route and enroll at a less desirable university.

When her father began telling me this -- for at least the 10th time -- on Preakness eve, I had an idea. I said, "Listen, Murray, bring Mary to the Preakness tomorrow. I think I can get her to change her mind." My impulsive plan depended on Head Play not entering the starting gate and then winning the race despite the significant handicap of starting from the outside. That that would happen, of course, was far from a certainty.

Preakness Day dawned bright and beautiful after an all-night rain, and Mary proved to be as pretty as the day. As the horses neared the post for the Preakness, I said to her, "Mary, your dad told me about your school decision. Now I want you to watch the No. 4 horse, Head Play, who's going to start this race from a position that's his first choice. And after the race, maybe you'll go back to your first choice."

I should have remembered that, as this was the Preakness, an extra effort would be made to get Head Play into his stall. For eight minutes the starting crew struggled with him while I prayed that the Preakness gods would not allow the colt to surrender a lifelong antipathy.

Finally, the crew gave up, led Head Play to his onerous outside position, and the field was sent off. The colt outran the pack to the first turn and, with W. R. Coe's Ladysman at his heels, led down the backstretch. Coming around the far turn, Ladysman gave me a few scary seconds as he made a game effort to collar the leader.

But he never got to look him in the eye because Head Play drew nTC off down the stretch to be four lengths ahead at the wire. He paid $5.60 as the favorite in the slow time of 2.02 due to the cuppy track.

An exuberant Murray and I had bet a goodly sum on his nose. But our best reward, as the winner cantered back to get his black-eyed Susans, was hearing a happy Mary say, "I see what you mean, Mr. Jim. If a horse can overcome, so can I!"

She did that and eventually achieved as much fame in her field as Head Play did in the racing world by winning the Preakness.

Oh, yes, Broker's Tip ran last, beaten by 17 lengths and becoming the only horse in history to do so after winning the Kentucky Derby.

James M. Merritt writes from Baltimore. "Other Voices," a collection of his essays for this page, has been published by the Charlestown Retirement Community.

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