Why the Preakness Is a Jewel of Its Own in the Triple Crown Season

Tom Weir@@tomweirsportsFeatured ColumnistMay 15, 2014

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For some fans of horse racing’s Triple Crown, there might be a temptation to point out that "Preakness" rhymes with "weakness."

Ah, the poor Preakness Stakes. The middle jewel of the Triple Crown is often as overlooked as a middle child, and it’s not at all unusual to see it referenced as "the red-headed stepchild” of the Triple Crown, as Gerard Apadula of isportsweb.com noted.

Another way to put it is that if the Preakness were one of Archie Manning’s sons, it would be Cooper, the one who didn’t become a Super Bowl-winning quarterback.

But the Preakness is the race that tells us whether it will be game-on for a real run at the Triple Crown. It's where the great horses show they don't need to be pampered with a month of rest and that they can prove their mettle in a second classic race, on a second track, with just two weeks to prepare.

The Preakness is where historic horses continue to rise and also prove they're more than a one-race wonder.

And though it's sometimes overlooked, the Preakness still is as venerable as any sports event on the face of the planet. It will be run for the 139th time Saturday, but as always it will be at the mercy of the other two Triple Crown races as it seeks to be memorable.

If Kentucky Derby champion California Chrome fails to navigate his way into the winner’s circle at Pimlico Race Course on Saturday, this Preakness will quickly be forgotten. It will just be one more year since Affirmed in 1978 that we’ve gone without finding horse racing’s 12th Triple Crown winner.

California Chrome
California ChromePatrick Smith/Getty Images

But even if California Chrome dominates, the Preakness will enjoy only a brief shining moment, and then all eyes will turn to the crown-clinching Belmont Stakes, three weeks further down the road in New York.

So it goes for the second Triple Crown race, which fittingly is run on the nation's second-oldest track. (Saratoga in New York dates back slightly further.) 

The Preakness hasn't always been relegated to this second slot. Today's Triple Crown order was set in 1932, but before that there were 11 years when the Preakness was run before the Kentucky Derby. There were even two times when they were run on the same day, in 1917 and 1922.

But eventually it made sense to give each of the three big spring races their space, and the Preakness fell into the middle.

Don’t overlook the Preakness, though. The Triple Crown is a three-race parlay, and forgetting about the Preakness would be like a tightrope walker taking a lazy step on the high wire.

The Kentucky Derby is where great horses prove they can thrive amid all of the insanity that accompanies running 1 1/4 miles as 160,000 people party. The Belmont Stakes is where legends prove they have the stamina to withstand not only a 1.5-mile test, but also a third race in five weeks against the best of their breeding class.

So what about the Preakness?

The 1 3/16-mile race comes just two weeks after the Derby, and for virtually every horse in the field it will be the quickest turnaround of their young careers.

Betting favorite California Chrome, for instance, has almost always had at least four weeks between races. The lone exception was the second outing of his 11-race career, which came after only three weeks of rest.

Chrome’s 77-year-old trainer, Art Sherman, told The Associated Press that he has never had to bring a horse back onto the track so soon after a race during all of his decades in the sport.

Apr 29, 2014; Louisville, KY, USA; Art Sherman the trainer for Kentucky Derby hopeful California Chrome speaks to the media following a morning workout out at Churchill Downs. Mandatory Credit: Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

"I know it's tradition, but it's grueling," Sherman told the AP’s Beth Harris. "You got three different tracks and you got to travel."

And the Preakness presents the tightest scheduling challenge of the Triple Crown.

"It's pushing the envelope a little bit," Sherman said. "It takes a horse 11 days to really recover out of a race."

And a couple more to settle in at a new stable, and then it’s race day.

Having proven he can win the big one, it now is time for California Chrome to show he can back it up.

His trip around Churchill Downs was smooth and without adversity. At the Preakness, he’ll be facing some competition that skipped the Derby and that is coming in fresh.

The field can change before post time, but at the moment there figure to be at least seven horses that didn’t run at the Derby: Pablo Del Monte, Dynamic Impact, Kid Cruz, Social Inclusion, Bayern, Ring Weekend and a filly, Ria Antonia.

All of those horses plus the rest of the field will be taking dead aim at California Chrome in the Preakness, where trying to beat the Kentucky Derby winner can become downright conspiratorial.

Renowned trainer D. Wayne Lukas was naturally happy last year when Oxbow made him a Preakness winner for the sixth time, but Lukas seemed to take additional enjoyment from derailing Orb’s Triple Crown aspirations.

Said Lukas to reporters, relishing the moment: "I get paid to spoil dreams."

That's horse racing. Nobody is given anything.

Orb’s defeat also points out an intangible that could crush California Chrome. Orb drew the No. 1 post position and never got in the clear after getting boxed in along the rail early. That typically has been the fate of the horse that gets the No. 1 position, which has produced only two Preakness winners in the last 63 years.

One thing Saturday’s field doesn’t have to worry about is the belief that Pimlico has tight turns that make it tough to move up, and thus favor a horse with early speed. The Daily Racing Form did a good job of exposing that myth a few years ago, and aerial photographs have shown Pimlico’s curves are nearly identical to those of Churchill Downs.

Secretariat certainly didn’t have any trouble making up ground when he stopped off at Pimlico for the 1973 Preakness on his way to becoming the ninth of 11 Triple Crown winners. Secretariat was in last place on the backstretch, but then made one of the Preakness’ most dramatic charges into the lead.

Pimlico’s crowd won’t match the Derby’s, but it still drew an impressive 117,203 last year and almost always ranks as horse racing’s No. 2 event for attendance.

A big slice of this year’s crowd will occupy the infield, and the reputation of those racing zealots is zany and then some.

Officially, the partying in the center of the track is called “InfieldFest.” But, given that it draws common folk and a ton of college kids, it just as commonly is called “The People’s Party.”

The infield will be home to a bikini contest on race day, but that actually has been one of the Preakness’ tamer events.

For a time, one of the most popular ways to pass the day in the infield was seeing how high a few daring spectators could shinny up a flagpole while being pelted with beer cans.

When Pimlico officials thwarted that activity by greasing poles, the infield fans created a race of their own, the “Run of the Urinals.”

The idea was to climb atop a long row of portable toilets at one end, and then dash to the other end as the crowd showered the adventurer with bottles and cans of beer, many of them full.

No medals or trophies were given to competitors, but it was a Preakness mainstay for a few years until the placement of the toilets was reconfigured, making a long sprint nearly impossible.

Still, the Urinal Run produced many hilarious YouTube videos, including this one (warning: NSFW):

The Preakness also has several other traditions that conform to the standards of the posher patrons.

The winning owner gets to hold the Woodlawn Vase. Yes, hold, not keep. The original is valued at more than $1 million, which is believed to make it the world’s most valuable sports trophy. So it resides at the Baltimore Museum of Art and is brought over on race day, and the winning owner gets a scaled-down replica.

The winner also holds a place of honor at Pimlico for a year. As soon as the race outcome is official, a weather vane that’s in the shape of a jockey and a horse is painted with the colors of the winner’s silks. The weather vane sits atop a replica of the cupola that once adorned Pimlico’s Old Clubhouse, a famed building that was destroyed by fire in 1966.

And then there's Pimlico’s answer to the Derby being the Run for the Roses. Instead of roses, the Preakness winner is draped with a blanket of black-eyed Susans, the Maryland state flower.

But there’s one big problem with that, since black-eyed Susans don't bloom until late June or early July. Instead, viking daisies are substituted, and their centers are colored black with lacquer.

Ah well. When you're No. 2, you do whatever it takes.

Tom Weir covered the Preakness five times as a columnist for USA Today.


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