If they will rerun the Preakness tomorrow, I will clean out my savings account, mortgage my house and bet on the horse who lost it Saturday.
I will do this with a couple small provisos: that the race be run over a fair, uniform, well-maintained track. And that the best horse, Linkage, be ridden with at least moderate competence.
Under such conditions, Aloma's Ruler never would be able to beat Linkage, as he did by a half-length in the 107th Preakness.
For years, Pimlico regulars have recognized the existence and supreme importance of the track's occasional tendency to favor horses running on the rail. The reasons for the periodic appearance (and disappearance) of this bias are somewhat obscure. But when the bias exists, it is as if the inside lane of the track has the texture of Interstate 95 while the rest of the track resembles a sandy beach. The horse who gets to I-95 first almost always wins.
Last week a filly named Work of Art had raced six furlongs at Pimlico and had tired badly to lose by 16 lengths. On Friday she was entered at 1 1/16 miles against tougher company--a seemingly impossible spot but for the fact that she was breaking from Post Position 2 on a biased track with a slow horse inside her. Not only did she hug the rail and win, but she was pulling away from proven distance runners at the finish. The bias can make even proven quitters look like world-beaters; it can create form reversals of 10 or 20 or 30 lengths.
On Friday and Saturday, the bias was all-powerful. Fifteen of the 18 races on those two days were won by horses who were on the rail most or all of the way. The jockey on Aloma's Ruler, Jack Kaenel, knew that.
The jockey on Linkage, Bill Shoemaker, didn't. One of the three horses who managed to win from the outside during these two days was Oh Say, trained by Henry Clark and ridden by Shoemaker. Oh Say was so superior to his field that he could have taken a detour through the parking lot and still have won, but Shoemaker presumably mistook his easy victory for an indication that the racing strip was normal.
So in the Preakness he blithely permitted Kaenel to cut in front of him and take Aloma's Ruler to the inside, while he kept Linkage off the rail throughout the entire race. He compounded this error by permitting Aloma's Ruler to set a ridiculously slow pace. The aforementioned maiden filly, Work of Art, had run her first half-mile in 46 4/5 seconds and still was strong enough to pull away in the stretch. Shoemaker permitted Aloma's Ruler to lead through the first half in :48.
This was an especially crucial error because Aloma's Ruler probably couldn't have withstood a lot of pressure. He never had raced farther than a mile, and his trainer, Butch Lenzini, conceded that he was coming into the Preakness "on a shoestring."
If an aggressive jockey like Angel Cordero Jr. had been riding Linkage, he would have hustled the colt to get to the rail and to keep Aloma's Ruler outside him in the deeper going. If the two horses had engaged in a head-to-head duel, with the better-conditioned Linkage on the rail, he might have annihilated Aloma's Ruler.
But even if Aloma's Ruler was the second-best horse in the field on Saturday, that would be no disgrace. Linkage demonstrated that he is a great racehorse--in the class of animals like Affirmed and Seattle Slew--and flatly contradicted the widespread notion that this is a sub-par year for 3-year-olds.
For many years I have maintained speed figures for all the races in Maryland. They enabled me to measure the inherent fastness or slowness of racing surfaces, and to compare with some precision the performances of horses who ran on different tracks, different days or even different years.
The time of this Preakness may not have looked fast, but it was impressive because the track was unusually slow. If the horses who competed in the Preakness since 1977 had run over Saturday's track, these would have been their times (broken down to one-tenth of a second):
Spectacular Bid 1:55.3
Aloma's Ruler 1:55.4
Pleasant Colony 1:55.8
Seattle Slew 1:55.9
While the lofty position of Aloma's Ruler on the list is partly attributable to the bias, Linkage ran faster than the last two Triple Crown winners even though the bias was against him.
The caliber of his performance on Saturday reaffirms what a cinch he would have been against the mediocre field that contested the Kentucky Derby. The second-, third- and fourth-place finishers at Churchill Downs finished 11, 11 and 15 lengths behind him at Pimlico. Trainer Henry Clark's decision to skip the Derby in favor of the Preakness was a monumental miscalculation.
With a different trainer and a different jockey, Linkage might today be on the brink of winning the Triple Crown, hailed as one of the great thoroughbreds in years. Instead, he must wait until the Belmont Stakes to get the respect he deserves--assuming that Clark deigns to enter and Shoemaker can muster a performance of at least minimal competence.