Six years ago, Neapolitian Way came flying around the stretch turn at Pimlico and, with his leg bleeding from a cut inflicted during the race, rallied to finish second in the Preakness.
One day in the next week or so, the gelding will return to the scene of his greatest performance. But this time the circumstances won't be so special. Neapolitan Way will be running in a $14,000 claiming race, and even at this low echelon of competition he is not likely to win.
More than his level of competition has changed since 1974. Once Neapolitan Way was sufficiently valuable that he was trained on the basis of what was best for him. Now he has joined the graet mass of thoroughbreds who are little more than pieces of merchandise, who will keep running until they wind up in the equine scrap heap.
Bred and raised on a fashionable Kentucky farm, the son of Barbizon was sold for $63,000 at the Keeneland Yearling Sales. His owner died before he ever raced, and he was sold at auction again, this time for a mere $16,000. Elizabeth Thomas of Holmdel, N.J., said she bought him because she was looking for a horse who would make a nice hunter for her daughter after his racing days were over.
When trainer Larry Jennings took Neapolitan Way to the track for the first time, the colt refused to do anything he was supposed to. Accordingly, he suffered the customary fate of headstrong thoroughbreds: he was gelded. Thereafter he showed moderate promise, and in the spring of his 3-year-old season he blossomed fully. He won the Woodlawn Stakes on the grass, emboldening Jennings to take a shot in the Preakness.
Ordinarily an owner might feel very sentimental about a horse who ran the way Neapolitan Way did that day. But instead of racing him, then giving him a happy retirement, Mrs. Thomas sold the gelding.
His new trainer had no reason to feel sentimental about this horse. He tried Neapolitan Way against top-class competition -- he even ran against Forego once. The horse failed. He tried the gelding in steeplechases. Again he failed. "He had a common streak in him," the trainer said.
At the start of 1977 he entered Neapolitan Way in a $35,000 claiming race. That was the start of his descent. In June 1978, trainer King Leatherbury claimed him for $10,500.
As one of the country's most expert practitioners of the claiming game, Leatherbury is not, and cannot afford to be, a sentimentalist. His job is to acquire horses, get as much mileage out of them as possible, then unload them. Yet he has a special fondness for old campaigners like Neapolitan Way.
"A $10,000 old class horse is much better than a horse who's been a $10,000 claimer all his life," he said. "If you can get even 20 percent of his old form back, you've got something. Like most old class horses, Neapolitan Way is intelligent and he does everything right. He has that competitive spirit."
But like most old class horses who have descended the claiming ladder, Neapolitan Way had abundant physical problems. He had bowed his tendon at least once before Leaterhbury claimed him -- meaning that the tendon in the back of his foreleg ruptured and became flaccid so it couldn't give him proper support any more. When Leatherbury claimed him, the injury had healed but, the trainer said, "A bow is hard to estimate; a horse can look perfect one race and he's gone the next."
Leatherbury got seven races out of Neapolitan Way until the tendon went bad again in a race at Penn National. Neapolitan Way couldn't finish that race, and he needed a year and a half to recover. Now he is back in training again, and Leatherbury is trying to get him fit for a 1 1/16-mile grass race.
His training now bears little resemblance to 1974. "There's a lot of difference between training a Preakness horse and a horse with problems," Leaterhbury said. "Anybody knows you should give a horse a fast workout four or five days before the Preakness. When you've got a horse with problems, you might know what you should do. But that's not the same as what you can do. You have to make a compromise.
"I'm having trouble getting the weight off Neapolitan Way," Leatherbury explained. "He's still not fit. But I'm scared to train him too hard because I don't want to aggravate a problem in the workouts."
Somehow Leaterhbury hopes to get the 9-year-old fit enough to be raced regularly. "Old horses like this may have five good races in them, and you have to unload them before they go bad," he said.
Leatherbury will be playing his usual game of wits with his fellow trainers, running Neapolitan Way in races he can dominate, daring the other trainers to claim him. They all know what makes the game such a gamble: When Neapolitan Way's tendons rupture this time, it surely will be the last time.