Trainer John Campo's confidence is always as ample as his girth, but he is a realist, too. He recognizes that there are reasons for skepticism about Pleasant Colony's chances to win the Preakness. r
Campo knows that his colt got every possibly bit of good luck when he won the Kentucky Derby two weeks ago. Now he must break from post position 12 and try to come from far behind on a Pimlico track on which such stretch-runners don't often fare well. He may also have to contend with a sloppy racing surface for the first time.
Having acknowledged these doubts, Campo shrugged them off and confidently declared this morning that Pleasant Colony will win Saturday:
"He has the class, and he's not going to have any excuses. He hasn't even run to his potential yet. He's a good horse, a real good horse." Campo emphasized the adjective, savored it, for he believes that Pleasant Colony has the ability to transcend just about any obstacles that he may encounter.
And that is the chief issue in the 106th running of the Preakness (WJLA-TV-7 at 5 p.m.). Pleasant Colony will have to be as good as Campo thinks he is to duplicate his Derby triumph. But if he doesn't have that kind of innate superiority over his 12 rivals, this Preakness is more apt to be decided by racing tactics and sheer luck.
The expected crowd of 80,000 and millions of television viewers should watch a couple of crucial points that may determine the outcome of the Preakness. When the horses hit the first turn, and Bold Ego and Top Avenger are presumably racing on the lead, the Teletimer will flash the fraction for the first half mile. If they pass this point in 45 seconds or so, duplicating their suicidal duel at Churchhill Downs, stretch-runners may dominate this race, too. But if their jockeys manage to restrain these horses, and the fraction is 47 seconds or thereabouts, Bold Ego may carry his speed a long way.
The other critical juncture of the Preakness will be the final turn. While horses often win the Kentucky Derby with dramatic sweeping moves on the turn, such moves don't get the money at Pimlico. There are at least three formidable stretch-runners in Saturday's field -- Pleasant Colony, Woodchopper and Highland Blade -- and some of them will inevitably be parked disadvantageously wide.
Because of all these uncertainties, this is an unusually intriguing Preakness -- a far cry from the years when Superior horses like Spectacular Bid, Seattle Slew and Secretariat dominated their opposition. Five horses in this field are generally considered serious contenders:
Pleasant Colony will be favored at about 9 to 5 on the strength of his Derby performance, when he rallied from 17th place and won with more authority than his three-quarter-length margin would suggest. He has trained well for this race, and he again figures to be aided by his jockey, Jorge Velasquez, who has no peer at picking his way through heavy traffic.
Woodchopper rallied strongly to finish second at Churchill Downs, after encountering some obstruction at the head of the stretch. "I wish my horse had had a chance to get started sooner," said trainer Jack Gaver. "I thought he was a better horse than Pleasant Colony on the day of the Derby, and I wouldn't trade places with him on Saturday."
Bold Ego was a victim of the fastest early pace in Kentucky Derby history. After contending for the lead, he faded in the last eighth of a mile and finished 10th. But he showed when he won the Arkansas Derby that he is capable of carrying his speed for a distance, and he figures to carry it a good way on the Pimlico track. He would be helped even more by a sloppy track. "This is a superior mud horse," trainer Jack Van Berg said.
Partez made a powerful rush to the lead in the Derby, but couldn't quite sustain it, and was further hurt when Jockey Sandy Hawley misjudged the finish line. "We think he's peaking now," said trainer Wayne Lukas, who won last year's controversial Preakness with Codex. "And a muddy track would help. The last time he worked on an off-track, he literally ate the mud and said, 'Boy, this tastes good!'" Partez could make his 72-year-old owner, Henry Greene, the first black man to win a Triple Crown event in modern times.
Highland Blade ran a strong second to Plesant Colony in the Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct, but trainer David Whiteley resisted temptation, elected to bypass the Derby and pointed his colt for the Preakness, instead. He acknowledged that his colt will be conceding an edge in condition to his rivals who ran a mile and one quarter two weeks ago, but thinks Highland Blade benefits from well-spaced races. In Whiteley's capable hands, he could manage to win Saturday.
At least three other horses in the field are marginal contenders: A Run, Flying Nashua and Top Avenger. A fourth, Pass the Tab, was scratched today. The other five entrants -- Paristo, Double Sonic, Bare Knuckles, Thirty Eight Paces and Escambia Bay -- are shooting for the moon. But this is the kind of wide-open race that encourages owners and trainers to dream. Almost nobody can feel really confident about what is going to happen at 5:40 p.m. Saturday -- except for John Campo.