At about 5 p.m. today, the only horse alive who still can make a run for the 1986 Triple Crown will be led into Pimlico Race Course's paddock and a saddle thrown across his back. Willie Shoemaker will be tossed up there, too, and that will be the team to watch in the Preakness Stakes: Shoemaker and Ferdinand.
Yet Ferdinand may not even go to the post as the betting favorite, which would be a pronounced snub after his victory in the Kentucky Derby. Such sages as Andrew Beyer are proclaiming the merits of Badger Land and exhuming the Derby tapes to prove that colt's rough trip and bad luck at Churchill Downs, and promising he cannot lose. The entry of Badger Land and Clear Choice could command most of the action at the windows.
But yesterday at Pimlico's Alibi Breakfast, at which trainers and riders are given the opportunity to apologize in advance for anything that might happen, Shoemaker opened a window on his own thinking about the Preakness.
Asked if he thought he and Ferdinand could lick Badger Land again, he said, simply, "I don't see why not." This was said softly, without bluster, Shoemaker's way.
In other asides, Shoemaker said that for him the biggest surprise in the Derby was not Ferdinand's victory, "but the 17-to-1 odds against us." Only a week before that race, he had predicted that they'd be home first. "I was riding a wonderful racehorse."
On the threat of Badger Land in the Preakness, Shoemaker said, "People forget. We hooked up with Badger Land in January and lost by inches. But the charts don't say how we were two lengths on top inside the eighth pole and that Ferdinand began to loaf and wait for the others to catch up, like some horses do. It's a habit we were able to kick."
There will be instructions in the paddock from trainer Charles Whittingham, right? "Nothing to speak of," Shoemaker said. "Same thing he always tells me: 'Try to get position and then do your best.' " Or, as another trainer said to his rider in an even more laconic vein, "Good luck."
Nothing like the elaborate instructions Eddie Arcaro once heard from a novice owner of a cheap claimer who told him in the paddock: "Now I want you quick out of the gate . . . Lay third or fourth at the turn . . . Move up fast in the backstretch and then go to the front at the turn for home."
Whereupon, Arcaro said, "Okay, but now tell me what do I do with the horse."
Shoemaker said he had no fixed plan for Ferdinand in the Preakness. "He's not a one-type runner. Really a fine horse and can do anything I ask him. He's got big speed and he's quick. He's an athlete. We'll figure something out."
Shoemaker admitted that in the Derby he had to restrain Ferdinand early. "Yeah, that's right," he said. "He was hot and angry after getting sideswiped a couple of times coming out of the gate and he wanted to catch up with everybody in a hurry. I finally settled him down." Then they came from 20 lengths out of it to win going away.
Only seven will go to the post today, one of the smaller fields in Preakness history, but one of the biggest crowds is expected. Shoemaker, the Derby winner at age 54, is a Preakness plus. The excitement downtown was reflected yesterday by folks at the Inner Harbor wearing T-shirts emblazoned, "Senior Citizens for Ferdinand."
All week, Chick Lang has been exulting. "We've got a hoss race," the executive vice president, general manager, director of everything at Pimlico said. "Only seven in there, so it will be honest. Not a lot of nags taking up space, only seven, but we've got the Derby cream, something for everybody.
"All these owners and trainers didn't come here for crabs and beer."
Today's Preakness is, above all, a race of curiosity. Are Ferdinand and Shoemaker all that they seem to be? Who can beat Badger Land? Is Snow Chief, a four-time winner over Badger Land before the Derby, condemned forever by his one bad race in Louisville? What about Maryland-bred Broad Brush, who hung on so well in the Derby. If he wins it, envision the headlines: "Local Bay Makes Good."
In there, too, is Clear Choice, royally bred and fresh from winning the Withers Mile in a romp. And, too, the speedball, Groovy, who will lead the group for at least three quarters of a mile. Groovy didn't win the Derby but won a place in the Guinness Book of Records as the No. 1 folderoo, leading for six furlongs, then dropping to 15th by the mile mark, the next call.