Jockeys frequently have messed up in the Preakness because they have ignored the bias of the racetrack. Saturday, however, the track was perfectly normal and fair, but the jockeys messed up anyway, contributing greatly to the ultimate victory of Tank's Prospect.
All week long, the trainers of the principal contenders had talked about little but speed, speed, speed. Butch Lenzini wanted Eternal Prince to capitalize on Pimlico's speed-favoring tendencies and try to lead all the way. Roger Laurin said that Chief's Crown wasn't going to let his chief rival steal the race.
There have been many occasions when these tactics would have been essential at Pimlico. But the racing strip on the day of the 110th Preakness was well-maintained, fast and unbiased. While speed horses might have had an edge in other races on the card, this was not the kind of track that was going to carry an undeserving horse to victory. Under the circumstances, many of the jockeys in the Preakness miscalculated, and Don MacBeth's ride aboard Chief's Crown showed why his non-fans have dubbed him "MacDeath."
Chris McCarron, ordinarily a very patient rider, followed Lenzini's instructions and sent Eternal Prince barreling out of the gate to set the second-fastest pace in Preakness history. While he was running a quarter-mile in 22 2/5 seconds, a half in :45 1/5 and three-quarters in a breathtaking 1:09 2/5, other speed horses in the field were doggedly pursuing him until they gave out, victims of the hot pace. After six furlongs, MacBeth faced the critical decision: Should he rush up to duel with the leader, or wait a while until he started to fade, too?
Any horse who sprints the first six furlongs of a 1 3/16-mile race in 1:09 2/5 is going to fall apart unless he's another Secretariat. And if that were another Secretariat in front, Chief's Crown wasn't going to beat him anyway. MacBeth didn't have to be in any hurry. But after all the talk this week about the way Pimlico favors speed, MacBeth didn't want to let the leader get away from him. He challenged Eternal Prince prematurely, battled outside him all the way around the turn, running an extraordinarily fast fourth quarter-mile.
MacBeth was asking too much, too soon. All this while, Pat Day had permitted Tank's Prospect to bide his time and save ground on the turns. Only when Chief's Crown began to weaken badly from his premature exertions did Tank's Prospect surge past him in the final yards.
In contrast to the Kentucky Derby, which had looked like a fascinating race on paper but turned into a boring one-horse runaway, this Preakness hadn't figured to be very interesting but turned out to be a thriller. It did, however, underscore the fact that the current generation of 3-year-olds is (as many people suspected all year) a very ordinary group.
Even though Tank's Prospect set a track record, the fast time of the race was due to the inherent speed of the racing strip rather than the brilliance of the horses. Earlier in the afternoon a nondescript 3-year-old named Diamond Rich ran 1 1/16 miles in 1:41 4/5, which roughly equals 1:54 4/5 at the Preakness distance. That would have been the 11th-fastest Preakness in history.
From the standpoint of speed handicappers, Saturday's race was in fact the slowest Preakness in many years. My speed figures indicate that these would have been the times of the last seven Preakness winners if they had run over the track on Saturday:
Spectacular Bid 1:52 2/5
Aloma's Ruler 1:52 3/5
Gate Dancer 1:53
Pleasant Colony 1:53
Tank's Prospect 1:53 2/5
Deputed Testamony 1:53 3/5
The real indictment of these 3-year-olds, however, is not that they aren't fast, but that none of them has shown the ability to overcome even mild adversity. Almost every major stakes race this spring has been won by the horse who was favored by the special circumstances of that race, instead of by a horse who exercised sheer superiority.
Chief's Crown established himself as the leader of his generation by winning races where everything was in his favor, where he hardly could lose. Spend a Buck won the Kentucky Derby by taking the early lead without a challenge and controlling the pace. Now Tank's Prospect has joined the ranks of 1985 classic winners by capitalizing on the insane early pace in the Preakness and the poor judgment of MacDeath.