It's a wide `Street'

Maryland horses have stepped up

More than one has hit stride on big day


May 17, 2007|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN REPORTER

In 30 years working with horses, Sykesville trainer Nancy Alberts had come about as close to the Preakness as most Marylanders. She'd watched the race on television.

"I never dreamed I'd be in a big race like that," she said.

But the talk in early 2002 said that no horse had emerged as a Triple Crown front-runner. And she had a medium-sized bay gelding named Magic Weisner who seemed to run a little better every time out. When she announced plans to saddle him in the Preakness, some local thoroughbred watchers told her she shouldn't lest she embarrass herself and the horse.

Alberts had faith in her 45-1 underdog, however, figuring if he had room to run down the stretch, he could shock everyone. Magic Weisner did just that, charging past the competition and nearly catching eventual winner War Emblem before settling for a surprising second.

Magic Weisner hasn't been the only horse with Maryland ties to make an unexpected run to glory in the Preakness.

Deputed Testamony hadn't even run in the Kentucky Derby when he became the last Maryland-bred to romp to victory in the Preakness in 1983.

Trainer Billy Boniface shared that victory with his father, Big Bill, the patriarch of a Harford County family that has worked with horses at its farm in Darlington since 1963.

Boniface almost repeated the trick in 1995 when Oliver's Twist went off as a 25-1 underdog and finished second, just off the lead.

In 2005, Bowie trainer Rob Bailes saddled Scrappy T as a 20-1 underdog and the colt finished second behind Afleet Alex.

Several horses with Maryland connections will attempt to follow the formula this year.

Like Deputed Testamony and Oliver's Twist, Xchanger - owned by Baltimore developer Domenico Zannino and trained at Fair Hill - won the Federico Tesio Stakes at Pimlico Race Course and then skipped the Derby.

"We're dealing with a fresher horse," said Zannino, explaining the logic that has underpinned so many Maryland-based long shots. "You figure if the front-runners that ran in the Derby are just 10 percent less, then we have a whole different race."

"This is our Derby," added trainer and co-owner Mark Shuman. "We'll be racing for 10 times as big a purse as we did in our last start, whereas the Derby horses will be racing for half as much. We'll be racing on four weeks' rest; they'll be racing on two."

Zannino has never even attended the Preakness. Xchanger was the first 2-year-old colt he bought. But he said the race is something special for a person with local ties.

"It's extraordinary," he said. "When you buy a horse, it can't not be in the back of your mind how far you could go with him. All competition is great, but this is obviously the best you can find in this state. So I'm ready to really enjoy it."

Bailes, meanwhile, will saddle Mint Slewlep, a colt even less experienced than the unsung Scrappy T.

Veteran thoroughbred watchers agree running in the Preakness holds special meaning for Maryland owners and trainers.

Pimlico historian Joe Kelly remembered well-liked Maryland trainer Henry Clark, whose horses won many races, but never the Preakness. Clark had a shot in 1982 with a strong horse named Linkage. Linkage, ridden by legendary jockey Willie Shoemaker, stayed within striking distance of leader Aloma's Ruler throughout the stretch run of that Preakness, but could not pass.

Lots of pride

"He told me that was one of the greatest desires in his life, to win the Preakness," Kelly recalled. "So you can only imagine how difficult it was for him to come so close. There is a great deal of pride involved in running the Preakness, especially as an older trainer."

Longtime Pimlico general manager Chick Lang said some Maryland trainers and owners have entered long shots simply because they wanted to be part of the Preakness scene.

"If you're kind of on the fence and you don't know if your horse can beat the Derby winner, maybe you think, `I'm home. All my friends are here. What the hell. I'll run,'" Lang said. "You get to go to all the parties. And it's something you can tell your grandchildren about, though you might not tell them where the horse finished."

Despite the local pride, trainers rarely run hopeless underdogs, Kelly said.

"Most trainers are pretty practical," he said. "The idea is to pick the best spot for the horse, not to overmatch him. If you put him in a field that just runs right by him, you can take the heart out of a horse."

Though Maryland contenders have tended to be long shots in recent years, that wasn't always the case. Challedon, widely considered the greatest Maryland-bred in Triple Crown history, finished second in the Kentucky Derby and then swept by the favored Johnstown to win at Pimlico in 1939.

Native Dancer was born in Kentucky, but was raised and trained at Sagamore Farm in Glyndon. The "Gray Ghost" won the Preakness and Belmont Stakes in 1953 and is considered one of the greatest horses in U.S. history.

Maryland-bred Captain Bodgit finished second in the Derby and third in the Preakness in 1997.

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