A different atmosphere at Pimlico Course

May 15, 2001 10:09 AM

This Saturday, it’s the 126th running of the Preakness at the ancient Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore and the setting is entirely different than it is for the Kentucky Derby. The Derby is roses and mint juleps, a magnet that draws people from all over the country with the most noteworthy celebrities coming from the entertainment industry. The Preakness is black-eyed Susans and crab cakes, more of a down-home affair, populated mostly by the locals, with the most noteworthy celebrities being statesmen and politicians from nearby Washington.

The center of attention will, of course, be Derby winner Monarchos, at the moment the only horse in the world with a chance to become the 12th winner of thoroughbred racing’s ultimate prize, the Triple Crown. His task is formidable.

Looking at past Triple Crown numbers, 14 horses finished first at both Louisville and Baltimore but failed in their attempt to win the Belmont Stakes. The list of Derby-Belmont winners who failed in the Preakness, most recently includes Thunder Gulch, who between his triumphs in the Derby and Belmont in 1995, ran third to Timber Country.

There are some unusual factors that differentiate the Preakness from the Derby. Most critical is the seldom-run distance of the race -1 3/16 miles - 110 yards shorter than the Derby. Additionally, the Pimlico oval has sharper turns and a shorter homestretch than Churchill Downs.

Moreover, the Preakness draws horses that have passed on running in the Derby and come to Baltimore fresh and ready to pounce upon the Derby horses that have gone through a long and hard winter/spring campaign. Case in point was last year when Red Bullet skipped the Derby and fresh from a five-week layoff, beat favored Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus.

All of which prompts the question, who will win this Saturday? This handicapper is going with Congaree. He ran a really big race in the Derby, staying close to the suicidal early pace (half in 44.80) and then came on to take the lead in the upper stretch before finally yielding to Monarchos inside the final furlong. He’s a lightly-raced colt who should move forward from that effort. The distance and the track configuration are all in his favor. And in a huge move, trainer Bob Baffert is replacing Victor Espinoza as his rider with the redoubtable Jerry Bailey.

Monarchos will not be easy to beat. Even allowing that the track at Louisville seemingly was made of concrete, his final Derby time of 1:59.97 was impressive, as was his running style that confirmed him as a powerful stayer. He’ll be running fastest of all down the stretch but he could run out of ground. Congaree beat him in the 11/8 miles Wood Memorial at Aqueduct but he reversed that decision in the Derby at 1¼ miles. So the in-between distance of the Preakness offers an interesting scenario. Should Monarchos win this Saturday, it would seem that a Triple Crown is well within reach. In the meantime, however, if you bet the Preakness, Monarchos must be included in any exotic wagers you make.

One result of the Derby was the postponement of the coronation of Point Given as the first super horse of the 21st century. The colt made a good move around the final turn but then flattened out to finish fifth, more than 10 lengths behind Monarchos. His performance both stunned and perplexed his connections and they are hoping for better things this Saturday.

And there is precedent. Some of the more famous thoroughbreds of all time were Derby beaten favorites who came back to win the Preakness: Bimelech (1940), Nashua (1955), Bold Ruler (1957), Damascus (1967). So if Point Given can stage a form reversal, he’ll join some pretty fair company. It might be pertinent, however to note that Point Given has never won a race outside California.

Outside of an optional claiming race at Hialeah Park, Rick Pitino’s A P Valentine has performed as poorly this year as the Boston Celtics did when Pitino was their coach. Trainer Nick Zito is obviously hoping for a repeat of what happened in 1996.

That was the year when Louis Quatorze ran 16th in the Derby - prompting critics to say he should have been named Louis XVI - but then came back to win the Preakness in stakes-record time. A P Valentine went off at 20-1 in the Derby and he should be all of that and more this Saturday. Pat Day will be in the irons, replacing Corey Nakatani.

The list of non-Derby starters who will run in the Preakness includes Marciano, who won the Frederico Tesio Stakes at Pimlico; Distilled, a front-running winner of the Illinois Derby; Richly Blended, who won the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct and ran third to Congaree and Monarchos in the Wood Memorial; and Percy Hope, winner of the upgraded Lone Star Derby. A victory by anyone of these would be a gigantic upset.