And now a word from our guest skeptic

125th Preakness

May 16, 2000|By John Eisenberg

Amid the prevailing chorus of opinion that Fusaichi Pegasus can't lose Saturday's Preakness, listen to this voice of cautious skepticism:

"I don' t think this is going to be nearly as easy as it looks on paper," trainer D. Wayne Lukas said yesterday morning at Pimlico. "And I don't think Neil does, either."

That's Neil Drysdale, trainer of Fusaichi Pegasus, the Kentucky Derby-winning colt expected to be the biggest favorite in the Preakness since Spectacular Bid won as a 1-10 choice in 1979.

"Don't get me wrong, [Fusaichi Pegasus] was really impressive in the Derby, and he's a legitimate favorite here," Lukas said. "But the Derby was tough, the Wood Memorial [prep for the Derby] was tough, and this would make three tough ones in a row for him. I'm just not completely convinced that we should anoint him as a walkover [winner] yet."

Even though only a couple of the seven other horses expected to race Saturday appear capable of pulling an upset?

"The Preakness and the Derby are two different animals," said Lukas, trainer of High Yield, the probable third betting choice Saturday. "[Preakness] history indicates that."

It certainly does. Ten of the past 15 winners of the Triple Crown's second jewel were among the losers in the Derby, and six of those 10 finished out of the money entirely in the Derby.

Most glaringly, a colt named Louis Quatorze finished 16th in the Derby four years ago before scoring a wire-to-wire win in the Preakness. Five years before that, Hansel ran 10th in the Derby and dominated the Preakness.

Among Lukas' five Preakness winners, Tank's Prospect ran seventh in the 1985 Derby and Tabasco Cat was sixth at Churchill Downs in 1994.

True, favorites often rule at Pimlico, too; nine of the past 15 Preakness winners finished first, second or third in the Derby, and most recently, Silver Charm, Real Quiet and Charismatic won both races before losing their Triple Crown bids in the Belmont.

But as often as not, the Preakness has served as a correction of sorts in the 3-year-old market, straightening out the sheer weirdness that occurs when 20 horses start running into each other at Churchill Downs.

At least, that's what those challenging Fusaichi Pegasus are clinging to as rationale.

"We tend to anoint these horses, mine included, and throw the word `great' around," Lukas said. "We all want a Triple Crown winner so badly. But I'm of the opinion that we should let a year go by, and if the horse still looks that great next January, then we can use the superlatives for real."

Fusaichi Pegasus could be the one. He glided to the finish line at Churchill Downs so effortlessly that jockey Kent Desormeaux didn't even use the whip.

Hal Rose, trainer of Hal's Hope, says he expects Pegasus to win. Marty Jones, trainer of long shot Hugh Hefner, says he is running for the second-place purse.

But not everyone in the stakes barn is quite so obliging.

"Let's see him go out and prove himself again," Lukas said. "You come here, and it's a new racing surface, a new [track] configuration, a new set of circumstances. And the biggest factor is the two weeks [between races], which is less than the horses have dealt with. Some can come back from a tough race like the Derby and use it as a springboard for the Preakness. Some just aren't built that way.

"A big, tough, hard-knocking horse can come back [from a Derby loss] in two weeks and win. Tank's Prospect was like that. So was Tabasco Cat. High Yield fits right in that mold. He carries his weight extremely well and gets his energy back quickly. That's what you look for."

True, High Yield was awful in the Derby, finishing ahead of only four of 19 horses, a stunning collapse for a horse who had finished first or second in his previous five starts, all graded stakes.

But in a way, that keen disappointment is fueling Lukas' hopes this week.

"[High Yield's] Derby was such a departure [from form] that all you can do is throw it out," Lukas said. "There were a lot of things that happened in that Derby that didn't make a lot of sense. Like [long shot] Impeachment running third. If you ran [High Yield] against that horse 30 times, you almost think you'd win all 30. So I'm just going to throw that one out entirely, and we'll take another shot and see what happens."

Other horses with a legitimate chance Saturday, or so it would seem, are Red Bullet, the likely second betting choice, and Captain Steve, Bob Baffert's horse, who got swept out of the running in the final furlongs of the Derby. Hal Hope's, the front-running speedster, will have to catch some breaks and go wire-to-wire.

But there's no doubt Fusaichi Pegasus will dominate the betting, and quite possibly, the race. His easy run to the finish line in the Derby suggested that we haven't even seen his best move yet.

"It was a huge move, no question," Lukas said. "After seeing that, it's crazy for any of us to sit here and say we're going to beat him here Saturday. But secretly in our hearts, we're going to try."

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