If a big-name 3-year-old colt had done what Eternal Prince did two weeks ago, he would be acclaimed as a superhorse, a standout favorite to win Saturday's Wood Memorial Stakes and the Kentucky Derby as well.
In the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct, Eternal Prince went to the lead and sped the first half-mile in 44 1/5 seconds, with two tough rivals, Pancho Villa and Nordance, pursuing him. On the turn he accelerated away from them, covering three-quarters of a mile in a phenomenal 1:08 2/5.
But even after these exertions, Eternal Prince was still a strong horse. He drew away to win the mile race by five lengths in 1:34 2/5.
This was not merely the best performance by any member of the current 3-year-old generation. It was a performance worthy of a Seattle Slew or an Affirmed.
If a horse with a big reputation had run this race, the Gotham would have been cited as undeniable proof of his greatness. But because the winner was the obscure Eternal Prince, handicappers found themselves wondering if this performance was some kind of a fluke or an illusion. The New York Times' astute Steve Crist reflected the general skepticism in his coverage of the race, which began, "Eternal Prince, a front-runner who folded under pressure going seven furlongs in the Bay Shore Stakes 15 days ago, caught an easy lead and a tailwind down the backstretch to score a five-length upset win . . . "
That's not fully true. Running a half-mile in :44 2/5 hardly constitutes an easy lead. And immediately before the Gotham, a $40,000 allowance race for tough older horses was run in the same wind; the winner came from behind to cover the mile in 1:36. That comparison suggests that Eternal Prince's performance was legitimate and sensational.
Still, it was hard to find many believers in him, except for his trainer, Butch Lenzini, who declared, "I wasn't really surprised by the way he ran."
Lenzini spent 15 years training horses in Maryland and finally gained some recognition when he won the Preakness with Aloma's Ruler. A year ago he got the chance to train full-time in New York, and he has been performing with distinction in that tough league.
His opinion merits respect and he said, "This colt has more talent than Aloma's Ruler. He's trained better than any horse I've ever had, but he'd always played around in his races and finally, in the Gotham, he put it all together."
Eternal Prince was bred by New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner and entered in a sale of 2-year-olds last spring. Brian Hurst, a Richmond auto wholesaler, bought the son of Majestic Prince for $17,500 and turned him over to Lenzini. The colt failed to win in three starts and was sidelined with shin problems.
This year he won his first two starts in fairly impressive fashion, prompting Lenzini to enter him in the seven-furlong Bay Shore Stakes.
"There was another real fast horse in there, so we decided to try to take back off him and lay second," Lenzini said. "But Eternal Prince wasn't sure of himself; he didn't want to be taken back in traffic." When the colt was soundly beaten, Lenzini concluded, "He's the type of horse who wants the jockey to let him roll."
When Eternal Prince trained brilliantly before the Gotham, Lenzini decided to give him one more chance against the same competition, and jockey Richard Migliore let him roll.
On Saturday, Migliore will do the same in the Wood Memorial, the most important Kentucky Derby prep this year because of the presence of Proud Truth and Rhoman Rule in the field. Will Eternal Prince run another overpowering race?
There are a couple of reasons for skepticism.
This week Hurst sold a 37.5 percent interest in Eternal Prince back to Steinbrenner. Owners try to sell horses when they are at the peak of their value. (Remember how Devil's Bag started to decline last year after he was syndicated for $36 million.) The transaction may reflect a lack of confidence in the colt's future. Furthermore, the distance of the Wood is 1 1/8 miles, and there are plenty of brilliant milers who cannot carry their speed around two turns. The Gotham might have been Eternal Prince's optimum distance.
But the fact remains that his last race was no fluke, no illusion. On Saturday the racing world will know whether Eternal Prince was a flash in the pan or can be truly one of the bright stars of his generation.