Closing Out A Myth

Track: Legend has it that Pimlico has tight turns that, unlike Churchill Downs, benefit front-runners. Preakness results dispel the myth.

May 18, 2002|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

The morning after the Kentucky Derby, regardless of who wins or loses, it begins.

People start talking about the Preakness as if it were a race for skateboarders around hairpin turns. You hear about Pimlico's speed-favoring surface. You hear about Pimlico's tight turns.

But ask the track superintendents at Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby, and Pimlico Race Course, site of the Preakness two weeks later, and you discover this: The length of the stretches and the turns of the two tracks are virtually the same.

Peruse the charts of the past 50 Preaknesses, going back to Blue Man's victory in 1952 from 13 1/2 lengths off the pace, and you find this: Only 13, or 26 percent, were won by horses on the lead or within two lengths of the leader after the first half-mile of the 1 3/16-mile race.

At that half-mile mark, as the field emerges from the first turn and enters the backstretch, 19 winners sat more than two but less than five lengths off the pace. Such horses are called "stalkers."

Another 18 "closers" charged from more than five lengths behind. That means that 37 winners of the past 50 Preaknesses - 74 percent - rallied from off the pace, contradicting the widely held notion that the Preakness, the second leg of horse racing's Triple Crown, and Pimlico's so-called tight turns, favor early speed.

Ask Edgar Prado, Maryland's dominant jockey in the 1990s who will ride Harlan's Holiday in today's Preakness, whether the turns are tighter at Pimlico, and he says: "Oh yeah, definitely."

Listen to Steve Asmussen, trainer of Easyfromthegitgo in the Preakness. He says he has trained enough horses and run enough of them at Pimlico to know what the track is like.

"On a day-to-day basis, speed has an advantage at Pimlico," Asmussen says. "A horse has to be on or near the lead. Pimlico is a racetrack where you need good acceleration and where you rarely see horses make up 10 or 15 lengths."

John Ward Jr., trainer of last year's Derby winner Monarchos and this year's Preakness entrant Booklet, says that Booklet is a horse for whom Pimlico and the Preakness were made. Ward didn't run Booklet in the Derby, so he would have a fresh horse for the Preakness.

"The Pimlico course is a, quote, speed-favoring racetrack," Ward says. "It appears that races run here are won by horses close to or on the lead, especially in the Preakness. The turns are tighter, so you've got to tuck in on the fence."

This myth of the Preakness being a race for speedsters apparently originated in 1957 after Bold Ruler, a speed horse who later sired Secretariat, finished fourth in the Kentucky Derby. According to Chick Lang, Bold Ruler's jockey, Eddie Arcaro, said after the Derby that his horse would perform better "when we get to Pimlico with those tight turns."

Lang worked at Pimlico from 1959 to 1987, serving as general manager for 21 years and earning the nickname "Mr. Preakness." He became close friends with Arcaro, who captured six Preaknesses, more than any other jockey.

"Like with E.F. Hutton, when Eddie Arcaro spoke, everybody listened," Lang says. "And you know, people are still saying it. Once they get that set in their mind you're not going to change them."

Lang says that if Arcaro, who died in 1997, told him once he told him a dozen times: "Chick, get people to stop saying that. I never should have used the word `tighter.' What I meant was `narrower.' The turns at Pimlico are narrower than they are at Churchill Downs."

Lang isn't sure how Arcaro figured the narrower turns would help Bold Ruler (although they didn't hurt - he won as the pacesetter). But Arcaro was correct about Pimlico's narrower turns.

Actually, Churchill is wider in the stretch and turns. Its dirt track from inner rail to outer rail averages about 80 feet. The exception is the beginning of the first turn, which narrows to 66 feet.

Pimlico's backstretch is 68 feet wide, and the front stretch is 70 feet wide. The width narrows entering both turns, most drastically on the backstretch entering the far turn. The turns at both tracks are banked about 4 degrees.

"I think the public perception is that tighter means sharper," says Chris McCarron, the Hall of Fame jockey who started his career in Maryland and now rides in California; he will ride Crimson Hero in the Preakness. "I never thought Pimlico's turns were tighter than Churchill's.

"But there is a difference between the tracks, and it's a distinct difference - the width of the racetracks. Pimlico's turns are narrower, giving the illusion that the first turn is a lot sharper."

But that, McCarron says, doesn't affect how races unfold at Pimlico. If the turns were sharper, horses on or near the lead would have an advantage. Horses making their move from off the pace would have a harder time gaining ground around a sharp turn.

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