Saturday's Preakness figures to be what the race has often failed to be in recent years: a fair, true test of the horses who ran in the Kentucky Derby.
After Ferdinand and jockey Bill Shoemaker won at Churchill Downs two weeks ago, there still was plenty of doubt about who was the best horse in the field. Most of the other contenders in that 16-horse cavalry charge were the victims of bad racing luck.
This often happens in the Derby, but too often the Preakness hasn't been any truer a race. The Pimlico track has acquired such a reputation as a speed-favoring surface that many good stretch-running 3-year-olds don't bother to come any more. And the track's occasional tendency to give an insuperable advantage to horses on the rail has turned two of the last four Preaknesses into virtual farces.
But on the eve of the 111th Preakness (5:40 p.m. post, WJLA-TV-7), the Pimlico strip seemed to be even and fair. For several weeks, in fact, neither front-runners nor horses on the rail have had any noticeable advantage. This change probably is because of the different texture of the track.
"Because our season opened in February, we had to put a lot more sand in the track," General Manager Chick Lang said. "The track is a good one and two-fifths seconds slower than it was last year." Management wisely decided to leave well enough alone, and didn't try to make the track faster, which has been a common practice in recent years. (The last two Preaknesses both produced track records).
With a compact field of seven entered in the $534,400 event Saturday, racing luck should be minimized further, and the best horse ought to win over the mile-and-3/16 distance.
Among the 80,000 or more spectators at Pimlico, there is likely to be a considerable division of opinion about who the best horse is. Three of the entrants -- Ferdinand, Badger Land and Broad Brush -- all are expected to command solid support.
But Ferdinand is surely the overwhelming sentimental favorite because of his 54-year-old jockey and his great 73-year-old trainer, Charles Whittingham. Shoemaker delivered one of the best rides of his storied career in the Derby, coming from last place and guiding the son of Nijinsky II through heavy traffic on the turn to score a 2 1/4-length victory.
Because he benefited from such good fortune, Ferdinand's victory was not as convincing as his margin might suggest. Even Shoemaker acknowledged that this morning when he and Jorge Velasquez, Badger Land's rider, were called to the podium at Pimlico's annual Alibi Breakfast.
"My good friend Jorge is on the horse to beat," Shoemaker said. "I had a good trip in the Derby and he had a bad trip."
A horrible trip, actually. Badger Land was bumped so hard at the start that Velasquez said, "I thought I was going to go down."
Instead of getting a good early position, which Badger Land's versatile style usually enables him to do, he had to come from last place, racing wide all the way. Badger Land managed to draw abreast of the leaders on the final turn but faded in the stretch.
"We had the right horse," trainer Wayne Lukas said. And he may have the right horse to give him his third Preakness victory in seven years -- after Codex (1980) and Tank's Prospect (1985).
Broad Brush, the third-place finisher in the Derby, had a relatively easy trip at Churchill Downs, but he will have much support here because of the home-field advantage.
Bred in Maryland and based at Pimlico under the care of trainer Dick Small, he impressed local racing fans with his talent as early as last December. As he has moved into top-class company, he has displayed both versatility and consistency. He has won seven of 10 starts and earned $615,443 for owner Robert Meyerhoff of Phoenix, Md.
The other four horses in the field are Snow Chief, Groovy, Miracle Wood and Clear Choice, the latter a stablemate of Badger Land.
All of them have legitimate credentials, particularly Snow Chief, who was being hailed as a potential superhorse until he faded badly in the Derby and finished 19 lengths behind Ferdinand. Trainer Mel Stute was stunned and perplexed by the bad performance.
"I was very disappointed," he said today. "I want revenge."
But even he couldn't be confident Snow Chief was going to regain the form that has made him the richest horse of his generation, with earnings of $1.7 million.
Groovy is expected to be the pacesetter in the Preakness, as he was in the Kentucky Derby. His five-furlong workout in 58 2/5 seconds this week signalled he will try to go to the front and lead all the way. In previous seasons at Pimlico, his raw speed alone would have made him a dangerous contender in the Preakness. But not this year.