It's a tough game. After the Kentucky Derby, trainer Mel Stute was searching for explanations of Snow Chief's resounding defeat. And now, in the wake of the Preakness, trainer Wayne Lukas and those of us who thought his colt Badger Land was a "mortal lock" are trying to comprehend his dismal performance.
With the benefit of hindsight, it is relatively easy to understand Snow Chief's form. The colt had been a versatile, consistent, tractable competitor throughout his career, but in the Derby he was trying to do the impossible. Horses can't run at top speed for this first half mile of a 1 1/4-mile race, as Snow Chief did, and expect to have anything left at the finish.
Faced with a much slower pace in the Preakness, Snow Chief showed just how good he can be. His winning time of 1:54 4/5 was nothing short of sensational. If he had been running on last year's Pimlico track, he would have shattered the track record.
As an indication of the slowness of the track on Saturday, a 1 1/16-mile stakes race for older horses was run in 1:44 before the Preakness. In the last two years, the times for the same event were 1:41 4/5 and 1:40 4/5. Thus, the Pimlico strip was more than two full seconds slower than the recent norms for Preakness day. Yet Snow Chief ran only 1 2/5 seconds slower than Tank's Prospect did when he set the track record last year. Nobody was going to beat him on Saturday.
But the 9-to-5 favorite, Badger Land, never even gave it a try. I always will be convinced that he was the best horse in the Kentucky Derby, but he never accelerated at any stage of the Preakness and finished 11 lengths behind Snow Chief (whom he had beaten by more than a dozen lengths at Churchill Downs). It was hardly the sort of performance one expects in a mortgage-the-house, hock-the-family-jewels betting opportunity.
This was not the first time that a Lukas horse has been such a disappointment in the spring classics. In fact, Badger Land is a continuation of a trend. The form of the trainer's 3-year-olds often has fluctuated wildly, and he never has been able to keep a horse running consistently well throughout the Triple Crown series.
There was at least one model of consistency in this year's Derby and Preakness, and that was Ferdinand. Although jockey Bill Shoemaker was making the old he-didn't-get-hold-of-the-track excuses after the Preakness, Ferdinand ran his race at Pimlico. The only difference was that the Derby set up perfectly for him, with all the front-runners fading from the hot pace.
In the Preakness he never was going to catch Snow Chief after he had cruised the first half mile in :47 2/5. Ferdinand is not a brilliant horse, but under the management of trainer Charles Whittingham he figures to have a productive season, especially when he gets to run even longer distances.
If the first two legs of this year's Triple Crown series confused expert trainers and humiliated at least one handicapper, there was one group that seemed to comprehend the races very well: the betting public. In fact, the wagering patterns were perhaps the most amazing aspects of the Derby and the Preakness.
Before the Kentucky Derby, Snow Chief was being widely hailed as a star and dominated the pre-race publicity. Oddsmakers figured he would be an overwhelming favorite. Yet the public was skeptical. After the first $1 million was bet at Churchill Downs, Snow Chief was 4 to 1, and his odds never got below 2 to 1. At the tracks across the country that offered simulcasting, bettors displayed the same coolness toward the favorite. And their skepticism proved to be well-founded.
After Snow Chief's loss in the Derby, oddsmakers logically figured he would be 4 to 1 or more in the Preakness. But although most experts had written him off, bettors around the country suddenly were enthusiastic about Snow Chief's chances.
At Pimlico he was 5 to 2, a shorter price than Ferdinand. New York's bettors made him 2 to 1 in their wagering pools. At Hollywood Park he was the 8-to-5 favorite. This support was not lost on Stute, who pointed out immediately after the Preakness, "The public never lost confidence in this horse."
A great racing writer of yore, Toney Betts, had an explanation for this: "There is somebody who knows more than anybody, and that is everybody." Certainly, in the Preakness, "everybody" knew a lot more than The Washington Post's turf expert.