On the cover of Sports Illustrated the week after the Kentucky Derby there was a big picture of a baseball uniform. The editors of SI were not the only ones who weren't talking too much about the afternoon of May 6 at Churchill Downs.
The reason is simple: nobody knew what to say. Two of the favorites, Successor and Ruken, never got near enough to smell the roses. And Damascus, the 8-to-5 top choice who had been touted enthusiastically by the professional handicappers since last December, just managed to hang on for third money with the best jockey in the business whipping his flank.
To top off that disaster, the winner turned out to be an obscure 30-to-1 shot named Proud Clarion, who had not managed to win a single race during his first season on the track, who had never won a major stakes race, and whose lifetime earnings totalled a paltry $14,865 -- hardly enough to keep him in oats. Not only did he win, but he won in the third fastest time in the Derby's 93-year history, after the entire pace had been set by an equally unknown horse named Barbs Delight, who finished second.
Tomorrow is the Preakness, the second, the shortest, and the richest of the three races that make up the Triple Crown for three-year-olds. Understandably, no one is doing much talking about that either. Although the final line will not be made up until today, it is fairly certain that the first five Derby finishers will be among the Preakness starters, and the Derby raised many more questions than it answered.
The Derby has always been a crazy race. Some winners of past Derbies, like Broker's Tip and Morvich, never won another race in their lives. Could that be Proud Clarion's fate? One famous Derby loser, Native Dancer, never lost another race. Could that be Damascus? Some of the greatest horses of all time never even raced in the Derby. Could one of those turn out to be In Reality, a likely starter tomorrow?
Lacking the answers to these questions, I am still willing to put my $2 and handicapping reputation on the line and say that Proud Clarion will not win the Preakness tomorrow. Sure, he is almost certain to go off the favorite, and favorites win 33 per cent of the races. Sure, in the 19 years since the Triple Crown was last won, ten horses have swept two of the three races. Sure, Proud Clarion withstood a sizzling pace and a sloppy track in his face to run the last quarter in an incredible 24 seconds. Sure, his is the classic rags-to-riches story of which heroes, if not champions, are made. I know. But I don't like him anyway.
Instead, I'll go with the 15-to-1 shot speed demon who finished second by a length, Barbs Delight. This colt, once bought for a meagre $2,500, fought with confirmed speed horses every step of the way to set the pace in the Derby, and he shook them off one after another. With half a mile to go, Barbs Delight passed the six furlong mark in 1 minute 10 4/5 seconds, which is faster than most horses, even good ones, manage to race when six furlongs is as far as they are going.
He had strength left for an impressive duel in the stretch with Proud Clarion, and observers said later that if top jockey Bill Hartack, who wanted the mount, had been on Barbs Delight, it might have gone the other way. Hartack will have the horse, and one-sixteenth of a mile less to go, in the Preakness.
Beyond ability, which Proud Clarion proved he has, a horse needs a lot of plain racing luck to weave his way around a field and come from behind. Luck was with him in Kentucky, as it may or may not be tomorrow at Pimlico. But a horse out in front is a horse out of trouble, if he can manage to stay there. I think Barbs Delight can.
The unknown quantity in this race is In Reality. He has not raced since he won the Florida Derby on April 1, but he has finished first or second in ten of his 11 races and could be the sleeper here. Reason to Hail, the 20-to-1 shot who was fourth in the Derby, is one of the most underrated performers. Handicapped in the Derby by his outside post position, he ran a strong race and would have caught Damascus in a few more strides. But he has been campaigned relentlessly from coast to coast, and the Preakness will be his sixth tough stakes in seven weeks. Horses, like machines, get tired. Ask the Fare ran a respectable Derby, but has yet to prove his classic quality. It is hard to take seriously the entries of Great Power and Favorable Turn, neither of which has won major races beyond a three-quarters of a mile.
Even the Preakness will not answer all the questions. Back in the barn at Aqueduct is a three-year-old colt named Dr. Fager, who won the mile-long Withers Stakes so easily last Saturday that he could have taken time out in the stretch run for a dip in the track's infield lake. Whichever horse wins the Preakness will eventually have to answer to him.
At the Preakness Wire 1. Barbs Delight 2. Proud Clarion 3. In Reality (the sleeper) 4. Damascus 5. Reason to Hail (longshot special) 6. Ask the Fare 7. Great Power 8. Favorable Turn