At first, Eddie Gregson sounded merely pompous when he said of his Kentucky Derby winner, Gato del Sol, "Our schedule doesn't dictate that he runs in the Preakness." At best, he could be accused of being stiffly formal, for a race track stiff.
And then, the next day, it got worse. Trainer Gregson, overly flushed by Gato del Sol's victory in the fifth slowest time of the last 20 years, made the preposterous suggestion that the Pimlico people could accommodate him and his horse by rearranging their whole schedule; by staging the Preakness later in the month.
"If Pimlico wants to move its race to a week later, it's all right with me," Gregson said.
That statement didn't merely border on insolence, it was a complete display of it--wholly haughty, clearly contemptuous and grossly disrespectful of a proud race that is older than the Derby and just as necessary to the glory of the Triple Crown.
For the record, Gregson and his colt's owners had stated before the Derby that they would have no part in the Preakness because it was too close to the Derby, the turns were too sharp and the distance a bit short for Gato del Sol.
But also for the record, no other trainer of a Derby winner in the past 22 years has demonstrated such reluctance to let his colt run in the Preakness, or demanded ideal circumstances to fit his colt's best running habits, or copped out of the Triple Crown and short-circuited that festival of racing that has become the public's greatest interest.
The action of the Gato del Sol people perhaps cannot be equated with William Vanderbilt's 1918 pronouncement that the public be damned, but neither does it show any tender concern for the public's continued interest in the sport.
A trainer's first duty may be to his horse, but wherefore is Gregson's duty different than that of those trainers whose Derby winners came out of far tougher races and yet chose to go on to the Preakness?
As this latest Derby was run, Gato del Sol had an easy time of it. He saved ground all the way to the home stretch, avoided all interference, made one impressive run and won by 2 1/2 lengths. He came out of it healthy and doesn't appear to be the delicate kind.
What Gregson's colt licked was, by general agreement, the worst Derby field in many years, perhaps as common a group of mediocrities as ever went to the post in that 108-year-old race. When a succession of favorites--Timely Writer, Hostage and Linkage--were hurt or declined the issue, it was the perfect setup for the likes of Gato del Sol, who had never won a race as a 3-year-old and only two races at 2. Until Derby Day, he hadn't won a race in eight months.
The point may be made that Linkage, now the Preakness favorite, opted out of the Derby after winning the Blue Grass, often the precursor to Derby fame. But his trainer, Henry Clark, was always precise about the fact that he always had the Preakness, not the Derby, in his sights. Unlike Gregson, he didn't foul up any high expectations on the Derby-Preakness-Belmont triple. As it is, thanks to Gregson, we have a couple of pennant races, but no World Series.
Certainly, Gregson does not have the kind of super champion who would allow him to dictate that Pimlico should trash all its tradition and run the Preakness on a date to his liking. The Preakness will be held without Gato del Sol in the starting gate and without any great sense that something is missing. The Preakness could prove more about the Triple Crown than did the Derby.
The sadness is that racing, which sorely needs a continuity that excites the public interest, will be hurt. Unlike the other sports--baseball, football, basketball and hockey--that provide daily and weekly league standings, racing has little of sustaining interest except the Triple Crown races and the fall handicap series. There is no other focus of public involvement in the sport.
That is the misfortune of racing: the lack of constancy; that and the haste of owners and breeders to retire their best 3-year-olds and cash in quickly on their values at stud before their outings as 4-year-olds can diminish the big prices breeders offer for colts that have shown some class. As soon as racing develops a hero--Spectacular Bid, Seattle Slew, Secretariat--he is quickly rushed into stud and the cheering ends.
Racing people should not complain that not enough fans identify with their sport. Their early retirement program could be equated in baseball with retiring the rookie of the year, depriving the fans of an exciting new face in the game.
How much of the Preakness-skipping decision of Gato del Sol's stable is based on a tender concern for its colt and how much on preserving his stud value, is of course, indeterminant. He may not win another race--that was the lot of at least one Derby winner--but with the Derby under his belt he would nevertheless command a decent stud fee.
They say he's being saved for the Belmont, where the 1 1/2 miles will be more suited to his distance-running proclivities, but there could be another and very logical reason why they don't want Gato del Sol in the Preakness a week from Saturday.
On Preakness day, another colt has a date with the starter. Name of Linkage. Gato del Sol and Linkage have met before. They met in the Blue Grass, the most important pre-Derby test. Gato del Sol didn't win that one. Linkage did, by 5 1/2 lengths. There is some evidence that Eddie Gregson is still feeling that breeze from the Blue Grass, and is allergic to something in it.