Chief's Crown finds himself caught between a rock and a hard place.The champion colt is the best horse in Saturday's Preakness Stakes -- there's no doubt about that. Consistent and versatile, the winner of nine of 13 starts and $1.3 million, his achievements dwarf those of his prospective rivals.
Yet as the field is taking shape, it appears that the odds-on favorite will face a damned-if-you-do, damned-if- you-don't tactical dilemma.
There is only one horse in the Preakness lineup who possesses blazing speed: Eternal Prince. The colt led all the way to win the Gotham Stakes and the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, and trainer Butch Lenzini intended to use the same tactics in the Kentucky Derby. But jockey Richard Migliore gave a miserable performance, breaking slowly and getting surrounded by heavy traffic, and Eternal Prince never got into contention.
Frustrated that his horse didn't have a chance to run his race, Lenzini replaced Migliore with Chris McCarron and immediately announced his tactical intentions. He would tell McCarron to send Eternal Prince to the front and try to lead the Preakness all the way. "Speed is always a good thing to have at Pimlico," said Lenzini, whose Aloma's Ruler scored a front-running victory in the 1982 Preakness.
If Kentucky Derby-winner Spend a Buck were running here, or if even one speedy sprinter were in the field, Eternal Prince would be subjected to enough early pressure to set up the race neatly for Chief's Crown. He could sit just behind the leaders and make his move when jockey Don MacBeth wanted.
But unless one of the outsiders goes on a suicide mission, Eternal Prince figures to take a clear early lead in the Preakness. And that creates a dilemma for MacBeth and trainer Roger Laurin: Should Chief's Crown try to challenge the leader early, or let him go?
If the colt tries to run with Eternal Prince, he will be altering his basic style and playing his rival's best game. Chief's Crown has taken the lead in some races, but he is fundamentally an even-paced runner and not a speedball like Eternal Prince. If Laurin or MacBeth elected to run head and head with Eternal Prince, it would be a bold strategy, open to plenty of second-guessing. "If we went head and head and lost," Laurin said this morning, "everybody would be asking us why we didn't just lay second."
The trainers of odds-on favorites usually don't approach a race thinking they need to employ gutsy, unexpected tactics, and trying to challenge Eternal Prince would certainly be a gutsy move. So Laurin is more likely to choose the other option, letting Eternal Prince take the lead and sitting behind him.
But that choice is no bargain, either, as Laurin knows well. In the Kentucky Derby, Spend a Buck was able to take a commanding early lead and, Laurin said, "We were put in the position of chasing him down the backstretch." Chief's Crown permitted Spend a Buck to dictate the whole nature of the Derby. MacBeth was reduced to hoping the leader would get tired and come back to him -- which didn't happen.
In races that are essentially two-horse confrontations, the horse with superior speed almost always wins by dictating the early pace. That is how Affirmed kept beating Alydar, how Affirmed beat Spectacular Bid, how Seattle Slew beat Affirmed.
And this is exactly what happened in the 1982 Preakness. Linkage was the odds-on favorite, and his jockey, Bill Shoemaker, permitted Aloma's Ruler to take the lead without a challenge. Only after the front-runner had been permitted to set a slow pace for three-quarters of a mile did Shoemaker try to challenge him. By then it was too late -- Aloma's Ruler scored a wire-to-wire victory.
Laurin probably should have thought about bringing a "rabbit," a pacesetter, to do the dirty work of dueling with Eternal Prince. But since he did not, he is almost forced to hope that one of the mediocrities in the field -- such as Cosmotron or Cutlass Reality -- will show enough speed to keep Eternal Prince honest. For an odds-on favorite, Chief's Crown's position is not exactly enviable.