One of the first lessons a young jockey learns is to follow the instructions of his employer, the trainer of the horse he is riding. Later, when he has demonstrated an ability to make sound decisions, a rider can change tactics in a race without alienating his boss. But most riders, on most days, will follow the instructions of the trainer.
Saturday in the Preakness, Bill Shoemaker, still one of the greatest riders to have ever crossed a rein, followed the strategy of Henry Clark, one of racing's finest trainers.
Clark proved his good judgment by not running Linkage in the Kentucky Derby, a race that exposed the lack of stamina of the "iron" horse, El Baba. Linkage would have been a dead-tired horse afterward if he had run in the Derby and would surely have been embarrassed in the Preakness.
Clark hired Shoemaker because regular rider Greg Smith, 22, had difficulty rating Linkage on the lead in the Louisiana Derby, a race won by El Baba. Linkage had beaten El Baba by daylight in a previous race. So Clark hired Shoemaker to settle his horse down, which he did while winning two races.
As soon as Linkage began showing some life at Pimlico, Clark, in full view of anyone who could read a stopwatch, trained Linkage to be rated early, then come on at the end. In both serious workouts before the Preakness, Linkage worked the first half slowly, then closed in the last quarter to register clockings of better than 25 seconds. Clark had no secrets.
In the Preakness, Aloma's Ruler, a horse considered by many to have little or no chance, broke on top and led in slow early fractions. Meanwhile, Shoemaker took back on Linkage and dropped over to the No. 2 path while Bold Style was doing a snake dance in the run to the first turn under the clever Leroy Moyers.
Clark and Shoemaker both thought Linkage could spot Aloma's Ruler the lead while Linkage ran in the No. 3 spot over the last part of the race.
Again, picture this scenario:
Shoemaker breaks Linkage fast, as does Aloma's Ruler. The two race as a team to the first turn. Aloma's Ruler edges away from Linkage just as Bold Style comes charging up on the inside. Bold Style carries Linkage to the center of the track and Linkage finishes off the board. What then?
By the figures that have been presented on these pages by my colleague, Andrew Beyer, Linkage is a faster horse than Affirmed, Spectacular Bid and Seattle Slew. That's a tribute to Clark. And those figures reinforce the judgment of Clark and Shoemaker that Linkage could stay clear early and come on to win.
How were they to know that their strategy would be upset by a truly exceptional performance by a horse who had to overcome physical problems and rushed conditioning?
It's easy to second-guess. But it's tough to knock Shoemaker and Clark for their strategy.
The two horses may meet again in the Belmont June 5. Aloma's Ruler definitely is in the race; a decision on Linkage will be made Wednesday.