The Preakness Stakes, one of the premier horse races in the country, is in dire need this year of that rarest of commodities: Healthy 3-year-olds willing to challenge a Kentucky Derby winner of whom no one seems particularly afraid.
Trainer Bobby Frankel's withdrawal of Empire Maker from Preakness consideration yesterday left the May 17 race at Pimlico with five confirmed starters. Only once since 1950 have as few as five competed in the second leg of the Triple Crown, and that was in 1979 when Spectacular Bid won as the overwhelming favorite.
Despite the rash of injuries that has sidelined talented 3-year-olds, it seems highly unlikely that the Preakness will take place with only five horses. The dearth of Preakness candidates has already coerced Gary Capuano into saying yesterday that he's now leaning toward running Cherokee's Boy, when just the day before he was 90 percent against it.
"I guess right now I'd have to say I'm leaning toward running, especially with Empire Maker out," Capuano said. "I'd be surprised if a few others don't decide to take a chance with the field coming up as short as it is."
Capuano said he wouldn't be surprised to see 10 in the race by Wednesday when horses are entered. The Bowie-based trainer saddled Captain Bodgit to a third-place finish in the 1997 Preakness. Cherokee's Boy, who is owned by Baltimoreans Foard Wilgis and Dave Picarello, won the Federico Tesio Stakes last month at Pimlico.
The withdrawal of Empire Maker was a blow to the Preakness. Even though he finished second in the Kentucky Derby, he would have been the lone Preakness runner with star quality. He probably would have been favored over Derby winner Funny Cide.
"The owners really didn't want to run," Frankel said by telephone from California. "And it's not really my style running a horse back in two weeks."
The Hall of Fame trainer said Empire Maker would wait for the Belmont three weeks after the Preakness. He said Peace Rules, third in the Kentucky Derby, remained his top Preakness candidate. Midas Eyes, winner of the Derby Trial, remained a possibility, he said.
Frankel said he would run only one, as they're both owned by the California resident Edmund Gann. Frankel will decide after flying tomorrow to New York and watching the horses train at Belmont Park, he said.
Barclay Tagg, trainer of Funny Cide, who won the Kentucky Derby at 12-1 odds, said he was surprised the field was coming up light. He had said the morning after the Derby that he expected a large field because people would think Funny Cide's victory was a fluke.
"I'd have thought the field would have really bulked up, especially if Empire Maker dropped out," Tagg said yesterday. "Maybe I was wrong about that."
Tagg flew Funny Cide back to Belmont the morning after the Derby. He isn't sure when he'll ship the horse to Pimlico or whether he'll stable him in the stakes barn or a quieter barn along Pimlico's backstretch, he said.
"I really haven't decided, to tell you truth," Tagg said.
He plans on schooling Funny Cide tomorrow in the Belmont paddock and breezing him Tuesday at Belmont.
"Then I'll make all those decisions after that," he said.
He said he might not arrive in time for the post-position draw late Wednesday afternoon.
The leading 3-year-olds at the beginning of the year fell by the wayside because of injuries. Last year's top 2-year-olds - Vindication, Toccet and Sky Mesa - haven't raced once this year. Leading to the Kentucky Derby, such potential standouts as Badge of Silver, Kafwain and Sir Cherokee were injured.
That left the Kentucky Derby with a field of 16 horses relying more on potential than accomplishment. That 16 ran - four less than the maximum - is more a testament to the lure of the Derby than the quality of the entrants.
"The Derby's the Derby," Frankel said. "You have people who will take a shot there, but they don't want to bury their horses by coming back two weeks in the Preakness."
Owners must pay $10,000 to enter a horse in the Preakness and another $10,000 to run.
Jack Knowlton, managing partner of the 10 owners of Funny Cide, said he was surprised that more horses hadn't been thrown into the Preakness mix. He said he had expected a field of eight to 12.
Knowlton, who lives in upstate New York, has been having so much fun enjoying the Derby win that he hasn't had time to analyze the Preakness, he said. He didn't seem too worried about it either.
"I can't argue that a small field isn't to our benefit," he said. "After one race we're kind of king of the hill right now. They've got to come and beat us."
Horse Last race
Funny Cide 1st Ky Derby
Peace Rules 3rd Ky Derby
Scrimshaw 11th Ky Derby
Indian Express 14th Ky Derby
Senor Swinger 1st Crown Turf
Cherokee's Boy 1st Tesio Stake
Midas Eyes 1st Derby Trial
Midway Road 1st alw. Ke'land
Smallest fields(Preakness since 1950)
Field Year Winner Favorite
5 1979 Spectacular Bid Spectacular Bid
6 1976 Elocutionist Honest Pleasure
6 1973 Secretariat Secretariat
6 1964 Northern Dancer Hill Rise
6 1960 Bally Ache Venetian Way
6 1950 Hill Prince Hill Prince
7 1986 Snow Chief Badger Land-a
7 1982 Aloma's Ruler Linkage
7 1978 Affirmed Affirmed
7 1972 Bee Bee Bee Riva Ridge
7 1957 Bold Ruler Iron Liege
7 1953 Native Dancer Native Dancer
8 2000 Red Bullet Fusaichi Pegasus
8 1991 Hansel Strike the Gold
8 1989 Sunday Silence Easy Goer
8 1980 Codex Genuine Risk
8 1969 Majestic Prince Majestic Prince
8 1963 Candy Spots Candy Spots
8 1955 Nashua Nashua
8 1951 Bold Hall of Fame-b
a-Clear Choice entry. b-Big Stretch entry