The Preakness: Remember speed hurts

May 15, 2001 9:47 AM
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Pimlico Race Course is not a speed-favoring track. Therefore, the Preakness, second jewel of racing’s Triple Crown, which will be run at the Baltimore track on Saturday, is not a race that favors front-runners.

Pimlico, with its sharp turns, is alleged to benefit speed, but in the last 20 runnings, only two horses have won wire-to-wire ”” Aloma’s Ruler in 1982 and Louis Quatorze in 1996. At Pimlico, speed kills.

Gary Stevens, who rides beaten Kentucky Derby favorite Point Given in the 13/16-mile Preakness, minces no words when he says it is not accurate to perpetuate Pimlico as a “speed track.”

“That’s a fallacy,” says the Hall of Fame jockey. “It’s like an old wives’ tale that Old Hilltop is a speed race track. Every year I’ve got to go through the same thing; that Pimlico is a speed racetrack. Basically, the horses run the exact same style at Baltimore as they do in the Kentucky Derby.

“It’s a not a speed-favoring racetrack,” he said. “It’s a fair race track and I think if you get your horse positioned where it belongs, then you’ve got a shot. But people who go in there with the attitude that it’s a speed race track and try and change a horse’s style, they’re making a major mistake. You might as well stay home if you think you’ve got to lay close and change a horse’s style. You’ve got no chance.”

Bob Baffert, who saddles Derby third-place finisher Congaree in the Preakness in addition to Point Given, concurs.

“The only horse I ever saw that got out there and really coasted was Louis Quatorze,” Baffert said. “Other than that, I’ve never seen it that way.”

As to why Point Given was so dull in the Derby, Stevens and Baffert remain perplexed, although Baffert admitted the colt had bothersome heels going into the race.

“He didn’t feel the same to me in the race as he has in his prior races,” Stevens said. “He never got in that rhythm with me. He felt clumsy, awkward. He’s a 1,300-pound horse and that track was very hard, or very fast, and he didn’t seem to be comfortable on it.

“I’m not one for making the race track an excuse for horses. I thought the winner (Monarchos) ran an exceptional race. My horse didn’t fire an ounce and still ran fifth. He wasn’t even blowing after the race and that tells me that he didn’t extend himself. I knew about the heel problems.

“You get a big horse on a hard race track and those heel problems are going to be amplified. We were fairly confident if we got a kind race track, we were going to be fine, but it turned out it wasn’t a perfect type of condition for us,” he said.

Added Baffert: “Gary thinks he had him too close to the pace and I’ve had trouble with his hind feet. He has cracked heels and Gary thought the track was too hard for him, for a big horse. It might have been a little too firm for him, but I don’t know. We’re still puzzled by his race. He just flattened out. He was running with his head up in the air and he just didn’t look comfortable.”

Stevens is hopeful Point Given can make amends.

“I think they’ve had ample time to correct the minor (heel) problem that was there,” Stevens said. “You never know what to expect. Obviously, I’m hoping for a fluffy, very kind racetrack. I think that would definitely benefit him, but, unfortunately, you can’t carry a racetrack around with you and you can’t ask for certain conditions. I mean, you can ask, but you ain’t gonna get’em. Whatever we get served up, we’re going to take, and I’m really looking forward to it, as I was the Derby.

“I know the horse I rode in the Kentucky Derby was not the same as I had previously ridden. I think he’ll redeem himself. Maybe I was too confident (in the Derby, but) after the track records were set early in the day, I honestly felt that he would shatter Secretariat’s track record (of 1:592/5), and we wind up running fifth, and a very unimpressive fifth.”

Victor Espinoza, who rode Congaree in the Derby and in three previous victories including a daylight win over Monarchos in the Wood, has been replaced by Jerry Bailey for the Preakness. Bailey, a Hall of Fame jockey and this year’s leading money-winning rider with nearly $9 million, had an opportunity to ride Congaree in the Wood but opted for Hero’s Tribute in the Blue Grass the same day (April 14). Hero’s Tribute finished last behind Millennium Wind.

“Bailey didn’t have a that prevented him from riding Congaree,” Baffert explained. “He just chose wrong. His agent (Ron Anderson) went with Hero’s Tribute.

“He went with the (Ragozin) sheets. The sheets would be good if they made them thinner, so a trainer could use them in the bathroom after he’s done reading them.”

THE HOMESTRETCH: Preakness picks: Congaree, Monarchos and Point Given . . . Trainer Cliff Sise Jr., on why his filly, Chastity Belle, refuses to break with her field from the starting gate: “If I knew, I’d be a genius. I don’t know. Maybe she can’t see, maybe she’s farsighted. You can’t go out and buy her a pair of glasses.” Chastity Belle dwelt in three of her four starts before breaking with her field May 9 when she finished second. “Before her last race, we schooled her at the gate probably 200 times,” Sise said. “Usually, a horse will catch on after a couple times.” Sise, who won 22 races at Hollywood last fall, already has seven wins in a bid to win his first major training title. “It takes some luck,” Sise said. “I’ve still got some bullets in the barn, young horses for later in the meet.” Sise’s 10-year-old wonder, Sir Harry Bright, has been sent to a hospital for an examination and is out indefinitely, but Sise hopes to have the veteran racing again next year at age 11 . . . Two-time Eclipse Award winner Mike Smith, a fixture on the East Coast for years, has invaded Hollywood Park and hopes to become a major player in Southern California by the time Del Mar opens on July 18. “The important thing is to establish some business before Del Mar,” says his agent, Brian Beach, “because Del Mar is a tough meet to come in to. We’ve done some groundwork with a few trainers and had nothing but positive responses. They’re welcoming a new face. Southern California is where Mike wants to finish out the second half of his career. He’s still a young guy (35) and has another 12 good years left in him, so hopefully, he’ll pick up some good horses right now and be as successful on this coast as he was on the East Coast.”