Second jewel gets free rein from Derby

May 10, 1999|By John Eisenberg

The Kentucky Derby is America's horse race, far more important and prestigious than the Preakness, but this year, for once, the Preakness should be a better race.

One year after a power outage humiliated Pimlico and Maryland racing on Preakness afternoon, the second jewel of the Triple Crown is benefiting from an unusual combination of circumstances.

When the starting gate opens late Saturday afternoon at Pimlico, racing fans should get a more accurate reading of the Triple Crown contenders than was offered in the traffic-choked Derby nine days ago.

They also should see a more exhilarating race, thanks largely to trainer Bob Baffert's decision to enter his brilliant filly, Silverbulletday.

None of that is intended as a slight to the long-shot Derby winner, Charismatic, the former claiming horse who won at Churchill Downs at 31-1 odds. The 125th Derby was extremely slow and excruciating, more like a children's bumper-car ride than a horse race, and durability and persistence were just two of the qualities needed to win such a brutal test.

Although Charismatic's pre-Derby record of three wins in 14 starts is bound to cast him in a dubious light as a Derby winner, he deserves credit, not doubt, for beating 18 top 3-year-olds in what amounted to a street fight.

Still, the reality is that many contenders crossed the finish line without having a chance to run.

General Challenge, Vicar, Stephen Got Even, Excellent Meeting and Prime Timber are just some of the quality horses who got caught in traffic and were unable either to prove or disprove themselves.

Many observers are blaming the 19-horse field, and that was a major problem, no doubt, but the Derby has had that many entries before without having the racing lanes so clogged.

The real problem was that many of the 19 had the same racing style, preferring to bide their time and win with a late rally from behind, but only one, a filly named Three Ring, wanted to set a fast early pace.

When Three Ring was bumped early and wound up in the middle of the pack instead of on the lead, there was no "rabbit" to stretch out the field, and all the late-running horses just motored along in one, huge clump. The result was gridlock.

"Every time I tried to go inside, I got bumped back outside," said jockey Jose Santos after finishing ninth on Lemon Drop Kid.

"There was nowhere to run," said trainer Carl Nafzger after his colt, Vicar, ran an appalling 18th.

That won't be the case in the Preakness, even though a full field of 14 is expected for the first time since 1992.

Pimlico is a harder, faster track with tighter turns than Churchill Downs, so the field is almost certain to stretch out, creating racing lanes.

And with Silverbulletday in the field, there'll be no lack of speed.

Baffert's filly was the best horse running at Churchill Downs on the weekend of the Derby, but she ran in Friday's Kentucky Oaks for fillies instead of the Derby. Her easy win was her fourth in a row in 1999 and her 10th in 11 starts overall, and amounted to little more than a public workout.

"What can I say? She's a gift to me," said the filly's owner, Mike Pegram.

Baffert was criticized for not taking a chance and running her against the boys in the Derby, as he did with his other top filly, Excellent Meeting. Pegram, who won the Derby with Real Quiet last year, said shortly before the Oaks that he was waffling on the decision not to run her in the Derby. "I'm leaking," Pegram said.

But not running her was the right move. The roughest Derby in memory was no place for an elegant filly such as Silverbulletday, who is smaller than Excellent Meeting. As talented as Silverbulletday is, she probably would have been pushed around and possibly set back at Churchill Downs.

Now is the right time to run her against the boys.

Pimlico's speedier environment suits her style more than Churchill, as does the more wide-open Preakness. There's almost no way that the same gridlock will unfold. Silverbulletday will get to run.

Her entry tops off a Preakness setting up as quite an event. Injuries, defections and power outages have damaged the race at times in recent years, but 1999 is payback time, it seems. Not only are the top three finishers in the Derby running against a filly who has shown true greatness, but many of the quality horses who didn't get a chance to run in Kentucky also are coming. So is Excellent Meeting, Baffert said.

Throw in a Derby winner whom few believe in, and, well, seldom have more horses had more to prove in the Triple Crown's second race.

That doesn't mean Saturday's winner will end up with a higher place in history than Charismatic. There's no substitute for winning the Derby, even if it's a weird Derby. The Derby is a spectacle, a piece of Americana, an event that transcends racing.

But as a horse race, at least for this year, the Preakness has more going for it.

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