Rarely does post position have an important bearing on the outcome of a race run over a classic distance. This morning at Pimlico, when entries were drawn for Saturday's 102d Preakness Stakes, it did.
Seattle Slew, last out of the gate in Kentucky Derby, was the first horse out of the box. The undefeated colt drew post No. 8 in his bid for an eighth victory. Hey Hey J. T., Counter Punch, Regal Sir and J. O. Tobin followed. When Run Dusty Run drew post No. 9 in the field of nine, Smiley Adams, the trainer, cursed.
This left Cormorant, Sir Sir and Iron Constitution with the 1, 3 and 7 positions still available in the starting gate.
"I'd been afraid we might get No. 9," Danny Wright, Cormorant's jockey, said. "I said 'Ohmygod, no not that, not nine, outside Seattle Slew.' Then when Cormorant got the rail (No. 1) I was overwhelmed with joy. It was just another little feather in our cap, because the rail can mean everything on this racing strip."
Wright had ridden 16 winners at the Pimlico meeting before today, several at large prices, and most times his tactic had been the same: Get to the inside with the speed horse and let the going along the rail carry that speed farther than it normally goes.
"Call it track bias, rail bias, or anything else you want, what the jockeys know at this meeting, particularly, is that it's important," Wright observed."Sure, the inside always is the shortest way home, particularly at Pimlico with its tight turns. But its more than that. Horses with natural speed hold on so well! few winners come from out of this (from far off the pace).
"Now, I'm not talking about "driving speed as much as I am 'natural natural speed," Wright stressed. "If you have to use your horse too much to get the preferred position, that can be costly in the end. But Cormorant has wonderful natural speed. Enough to get him to the first turn and hold that ground."
Clem Florio, the handicapper for The Washington Post, insists the ground next to the rail at Pimlico is sacred. "It moves a speed horse up five lengths," Florio said. "On the other hand, if a horse gets hung up on the outside here, where it's increasingly deeper, it means minus five or minus 10 lengths. Forget him. The extra-fast going is right along the rail, and it's only one-horse width wide."
Wright believes Florio may be exaggerating the value of the Holy Land along the rail, but only slightly.
"All the jockeys are aware of this," Wright declared. "It's just that some, I guess, don't want to become typed as speed riders, trying to take everything to the lead. Myself, I try to adapt to whatever is called for, and what I see is that some horses with early foot who have trouble getting in front at other tracks are winning easily on the lead here once they get to the rail. I don't know if it's because the going is tighter or harder or bouncier or what, but you can feel they like it."
Cormorant has good early speed. Seattle Slew may have even more. They will be second and first in Saturday's betting and first and second in the long run to the clubhouse turn that begins the 1 3/16 miles of the second Triple Crown event. The Pimlico track will be especially fast but far from uniform unless it is scraped or graded between now and post time for the $191,100 classic.
"We're going to be hanging out some fast fractions," Wright assured. "I know Seattle Slew is a good horse but I don't think anyone has really run with him yet. I know For The Moment was on the lead in the Derby but he just gave Seattle Slew some incentive and the fractions weren't that astronomical that a 'super horse' should have been able to finish more strongly than Seattle Slew did."
Cormorant would have been a stronger second choice in the Preakness betting had he not lost as a 3-to-10-favorite, by a nose, to Iron Constitution in the Withers Mile at Aqueduct.
"That was excusable in that Cormorant had been off (between races) for 34 days," Wright contended. "A horse is like any other athlete. You can't do your best when you're not on edge physically, when you're not makin' it and breakin' it. All the practice, all the workouts in the world aren't a substitute for competition; I found that out when I wrestled in high school."
Cormorant had won seven straight races before the Withers, losing only the first start of his career here last summer. Affiliate, ridden by Angel Cordero, contributed to Cormorant's loss in the Withers by staying with the favorite for more than six furlongs.
Cordero, perhaps America's finest race rider, contends Seattle Slew cannot be beated by any horse that challenges him in an early speed duel.
"We gave it a good try," Cordero said shortly after he and For The Moment had faded from first to eighth place in the Derby. "When Seattle Slew left us at the head of the stretch I said, 'Good-bye, soul brother.' You can't go with that horse and beat him."
Wright believes Cordero is wrong.
"I don't think Seattle Slew has beaten a horse as good as Cormorant yet," the jockey said, then added as an afterthought, "I hope he hasn't, anyway."