Believe It's trainer seems convinced.
"I believe the Derby was a good indication of the first three horses' ability, even though they're all top colts," Woody Stephens remarked yesterday morning at the Preakness Barn. "Alydar can improve. He is capable of better, but he is going to have to do better if he is about to beat Affirmed, and I'm not sure he can."
And what about Believe It, the Kentucky Derby third?
"He ran his heart out at Churchill Downs," the developer of a least one stakes winner a year since 1957 declared. "It was his best race: his best effort. I doubt he can do better."
The only criticism of Believe It is that he picked the wrong year to be foaled, in 1975, with A and 1A. Believe It finished 1 1/4 lengths behind Alydar and nearly three lengths back of Affirmed in Kentucky. He probably had the roughest trip of any of the top three, and he moved outside of Affirmed on the stretch turn in his bid to take the lead.
"That's true, and the slightly shorter Preakness distance (1 3/16 miles, compared to the Derby's 1 1/4 miles), with the tighter turns, should help him," Stephens noted. "But if there was another rich race for him during this period he might not be here. They don't have the Jersey Derby this spring. The Illinois Derby is run at Sportsman's a five-eighths of a miles track. The only other thing on the schedule is the Peter Pan (at Belmont Park May 28)."
The Peter Pan is merely $50,000 added. Believe It earned $15,000 for third place in the Derby and the he figures to grab off at least $15,000 of the Preakness prize. Then there is always the chance Steven Cauthen (Affirmed) and Jorge Velasquez (Alydar) could devote so much attention to each other's mounts that Eddie Marie will get lost in the shuffle and win with Believe It.
Lucien Laurin never has forgiven Ron Turcotte (riding Riva Ridge) for having concentrated too strongly on Key The The Mint in the 1972 Preakness. "Ron rode the other horses race. He kept looking at (Braulo) Baeza, instead of going on about his business" with the Derby and Belmont Stakes winner. Laurin commended. As a result, Bee Bee Bee and No Le Hace ran 1-2 to The Mint and Riva's 3-4.
The '72 Preakness was run in the slop. Stephens is hoping for the same track condition Saturday but the rains came to Pimlico early. Baltimore skies are expected to clear late today and continue fair through the weekend.
Should the strip be slimpy, Stephens would like nothing better than to put Believe It on the lead. The chestnut son of In Reality defeated Alydar by two lengths in November, setting the pace through the slop of the 1 1/8 miles in the Remsen Stakes.
Laz Barrera, Affirmed's trainer, occasionally tries to promote Believe It as the Preakness pace setter. The probability, if the track is fast, is that Believe It will be behind the 4-to-5 favorite (Affirmed) and the even-money second choire (Alydar) going to the far turn.
"The best thing you can give Alydar is a target," Stephens said after the Florida Derby. Believe It is 0-for-3 against the Calumet colt this year, twice having been caught from behind.
"Believe It can't outrun Affirmed and he hasn't been able to outgun Alydar," John Veitch, Alydar's trainer observed yesterday. "I'd bet a nickel he lays third Saturday, behind Affirmed and Alydar."
That is the logical order of things, once the serious running begins. "If Affirmed goes out too fast, or Alydar makes his move at Affirmed too soon, Believe It just might be able to come along and pick up the pieces," Veitch said.
That is possible but not likely. It would be nice, however, if somewhere along the Triple Crown trail there should be a moment of glory for Mr. and Mrs. James P. Mills, in whose green and yellow silks Believe It performs. Their Hickory Tree Farm, near Middleburg, has been a leader of the Virginia breeding industry for many years. The Mills have invested heavily, and wisely, asking little in return except for their share of racing luck.
In 1976, confronted by one of those "two-out-of-seven" tax years all breeders occasionally face, Hickory Tree sent several of its yearlings to the Kenneland Sales.
"There was one colt I was determined not to let get away from us," Mills recalled on the day of Believe It's Wood Memorial victory. "He had looked and acted special on the farm from the start. There was no way, except over my dead body, we were going to lose him."
Mills asked Stephens if he would buy the In Reality - Breakfast Bell yearling for him. Stephens agreed to do Mills' bidding.
"When it was over, Woody came by and tried to slip the sale slip in Mr. Mills pocket in such a way that no one would notice." Mrs. Mills remembers. "By then, of course, everyone around the auction ring knew what had happened."
Mills had bought his own horse for $110,000. The sales commission of 5 percent meant that the breeder had been willing to pay $5,500 for the privilege of owning that which he already owned.
Any man willing to go to such lengths deserve the best that thoroughbred racing has to offer.
Track Reward joined the Preakness lineup yesterday, increasing the probable size of the field to six. Noon Time Spender and Indigo Star are the other longshots. Entries will be drawn today at 10 a.m.