An hour before the race, Wayne Lukas was sitting alone on a bench at the far end of the Preakness Barn, some 20 feet away from Stall 18 and his horse Tank's Prospect. Lukas, who always looks as if he just dropped off a Porsche at valet parking, was especially chic today in chocolate brown pants, a matching brown knit tie, a pale blue monogrammed shirt and a stunner of a gold watch with hunks of diamond chips where the numbers should have been. With his head tilted back, and the afternoon sunlight glittering off his fashionably gray hair and that remarkable watch, Lukas resembled the poster boy for the Rodeo Drive Merchants Association.
Everything was fine, just fine, he said. If he'd been a photograph, the caption would have read: What, me worry?
To make conversation, someone asked Lukas what kind of race he was looking forward to. Lukas glanced over at Tank's Prospect -- who was standing placidly in his stall, covered by a green and white tablecloth-checked blanket -- and smiled. "Out of the gate I'd like to open up about a four-length lead," Lukas said cheerfully. "I'd like to be up six at the turn, then eight at the top of the stretch, then coast in by 12." Lukas closed his eyes and laughed. If you're going to fantasize, why not make it a lulu?
All week long the horses that people were writing and talking about were Chief's Crown and Eternal Prince. So much so that Lukas would later chide reporters that they had made the Preakness read "like a two-horse match race." But they were, indisputably, the glamor horses. Chief's Crown, last year's champion 2-year-old, the grandson of Secretariat and Northern Dancer. Eternal Prince, the speedball racing on a track that loves speedballs. Tank's Prospect may have been a third choice, but he seemed a distant third. He had come highly regarded into the Kentucky Derby after a convincing win in the Arkansas Derby. But a weak, fading, seventh-place finish at Churchill Downs left many racetrack smoothies cold and unimpressed.
Lukas understood the sentiment, but maintained his horse had a legitimate excuse: the track was too hard. The day before the Derby, Lukas compared it to I-64, the road from Louisville to Lexington. "All his best races were run on softer tracks," Lukas said. "I was sick at Churchill when I saw how hard it was. I knew we were in trouble."
But Pimlico was not too hard.
Lukas was sure of that.
Rain had softened it on Friday, and even though it was fast by the time they ran the Preakness, it wasn't rock fast. A trackman had assured Lukas Saturday afternoon that the track would "have a little bounce," and Lukas himself walked out on it and was happy to feel "some moisture" under his feet.
So an hour before the race Lukas felt he had every reason to sit in the sun and feel good about things. He had a soft track. He had Pat Day riding, and Day has led all jockeys in winners the last three years. Gary Stevens had ridden Tank's Prospect in the Kentucky Derby, and although Lukas said he didn't hold Stevens responsible for the disappointing finish, he eagerly jumped to Day, who had been on Irish Fighter in the Derby. And he had what he thought was an eager horse. "All I can say is I like the way he's acting," Lukas said, pointing to Tank's Prospect. "You live with these things as a trainer, and I'll be truthful with you, he acts to me like it's one of his better days. Whether he'll fire out or not, I don't know." Lukas smiled, and in the sunlight his eyes twinkled like stars. "But the way he shipped, and the way he looks, I'd be hard pressed to make an excuse for him."
Not to worry.
Tank's Prospect watched Eternal Prince go strong to the lead from the gate; he watched Chief's Crown, sitting second at the three-quarter mark, overtake Eternal Prince in the stretch; he watched it happen from behind, but from closer and closer behind all the time. Lukas watched it, too. And just as he heard himself saying silently to Pat Day, "Move now, or it's too late" as the horses turned for home, he saw Day do just that. And Lukas turned to his wife, Shari, and confidently hollered above the roar of the crowd, "He's gonna time it absolutely perfect." Lukas saw the script writing itself with every stride Tank's Prospect took. Even when the horse was still four lengths behind Chief's Crown, Lukas knew Day had the leader measured and clocked. Everything was fine, just fine. Tank's Prospect won by a head. It's not much of a margin, and it was the only time Tank's Prospect ever led. But it was enough of a margin, and it was the right time. Day was seen going to the whip 22 times. "I told Pat, 'Use him up; I'll revive him in the morning,' " Lukas said. "He's a big, rugged horse. He's not gonna take three love taps and run off and hide."
After the race Lukas would tell reporters that he had to go quickly back to the stall because he'd only brought one worker, a groom, down from Belmont with Tank's Prospect, and just 45 minutes before, Lukas had hired someone to walk the horse. "I had this feeling I might win," Lukas explained in the press box. "And because I knew I'd be here being interviewed, I hired a kid to be with the horse. I've got to go; I've got a stranger over there." Exit laughing.
When Lukas got there he found the stranger, a 28-year-old Baltimore guy named Mark Pratt, walking Tank's Prospect, cooling him out just like they tell you to. Lukas smiled, then took some bandages in his hands and began wrapping the front legs of the 1985 Preakness champion. Everything was fine, just fine.