Commentary

Personal Preakness recollections

The 1989 Preakness Stakes will always hold a special place in the hearts of fans

Updated: May 8, 2014, 7:32 PM ET
By Steve Davidowitz | Special to ESPN.com

While the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore is the middle jewel in horse racing's Triple Crown, it also has been a very special race for me.

In 1962 for example, when I was a sophomore in college and just beginning to get a handle on handicapping, I was on a bus with the Rutgers baseball team as we were bound for South Carolina from New Brunswick, New Jersey for two weeks of spring training.

I had my copy of Daily Racing Form and dutifully had marked up the Preakness with various color pens. When I thought I spotted the winner, I left my seat to ask Matt Bolger the Rutgers coach if we could stop sometime soon, ostensibly for a quick bite, but mostly because the Preakness was going to be on TV.

I had my copy of Daily Racing Form and dutifully had marked up the Preakness with various color pens.

My catcher Jeff Torborg could not stop laughing until Bolger, a horse racing fan in his own right, told the driver it was time for us to look for a spot to accommodate his left handed pitcher who thought he had a good thing in the middle jewel of the Triple Crown.

I told Bolger that Ridan had an excellent chance to win the race after his very good third in the Kentucky Derby. His eyes lit up. At the bus stop I saw him sneak off to a telephone booth to make a bet with the same New Brunswick bookie I would be calling to do the same.

The bookie was the cab dispatcher at the New Brunswick railroad station. A few months later he would give me a great gift, a well worn copy of the 1960 American Racing Manual. This 1000 page encyclopedia had all the stats and details of racing anyone could possibly want to know. The bookie knew I would pay more attention to it than anything being taught at Rutgers. Ironically, some 37 years later, I would become ARM's Editor.

Oh, and the '62 Preakness? A wild race for sure, as Ridan and a longshot named Greek Money battled furiously through the final furlongs with plenty of bumping and even some illegal contact between jockey Manny Ycaza aboard Ridan and Johnny Rotz aboard the winner, Greek Money.

Bolger was not too happy about the result. Neither was I. Yet, each spring until I graduated, we would sit in his office to talk about which horses looked good for the Preakness -- not the Derby, the Preakness. Our bus stop en route to Carolina had forged a bond between us and that special horse race.

About a dozen years later, I was living in Columbia, Maryland, a town about 20 miles from Pimlico and was holding down my first columnist job -- for Turf and Sport Digest Magazine.

I was in fact about to become Editor in Chief of that Magazine when Secretariat won the 1973 Preakness. As some may know, I got intimately involved in trying to get that great horse's track record clocking recognized by Pimlico, an effort that literally took 40 years to accomplish.

I will skip the details here, having written about the how's and why's numerous times in many forums. But, I should share one tiny fact about the disputed clocking that could shed light on why some of us on the scene were so suspicious of the clocking in the first place.

For several years, experienced observers knew that Pimlico had troubles with its electronic timing gear. For example, the track listed 1:09 flat for its 6 furlong track record, crediting it to a moderately talented filly named Frances Flower. This despite ample proof that Frances Flower actually had run that race three seconds slower, in 1:12 flat.

With that evidence and a few other dubious clockings, there was ample reason to be suspicious of an incorrect clocking for Secretariat.

For different controversial reasons, the 1983 Preakness deserves special mention; it was a circus without the clowns.

First, Kentucky Derby winner Sunny's Halo had a bad case of hives and was recovering from antibiotic treatments to deal with the problem, medications that were sapping his strength. Frankly, I was convinced that 'Sunny' should not have stayed in the race. All he did was run a tired sixth at $1.10-1, leaving thousands of horseplayers with plenty torn up pari-mutual tickets.

In addition, the connections for California-based Desert Wine had to go to court to get permission to use Lasix, the diuretic drug they had legally used for his second place finish in the Kentucky Derby that year.

Deputed Testamony, a horse whose name was misspelled on the foal certificate, won the Preakness after training on a private farm; shipping in the morning of the race, while wearing mud caulks for the wet track. Unfortunately, this important piece of equipment was not properly announced to the betting public.

In the same race, the D. Wayne Lukas-trained Marfa suffered a quarter crack in an important workout three days before the race and with a potential infection brewing, a reporter amongst the crowd of doting journalists gathered at Lukas's barn asked him: "Why are you running this injured horse in the Preakness; why not give him some time to recover."

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the 1989 Preakness was the single greatest horse race I have ever seen.

The question had even greater significance because Marfa had shown some signs of a physical issue when he bore in during the stretch runs of the Blue Grass Stakes and the Kentucky Derby.

Lukas responded: "When you get so close to one of these Triple Crown races with a good horse you do everything you can to make the race."

The reporter countered with this remark that ended the press conference: "That sounds great Mr. Lukas, but isn't it the horse that's going to have to run around the track on Saturday; not you?"

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the 1989 Preakness was the single greatest horse race I have ever seen, better than the thrilling 1978 Preakness in which Affirmed outgamed the gallant Alydar en route to Affirmed's Triple Crown sweep; better than 1969 Kentucky Derby winner Majestic Prince's narrow triumph over Arts And Letters; even better than Canonero II's extremely intriguing, wire to wire duel over Eastern Fleet that followed his shocking last-to-first win in the 1971 Kentucky Derby.

The non-stop action in the 1989 Preakness is preserved so well by the following notes in the official Daily Racing Form result chart:

"Sunday Silence, bumped by Northern Wolf after the start, was bumped lightly again by Pulverizing racing into the first turn, then remained close up while well out in the track into the backstretch and was steadied when Easy Goer (suddenly) moved on by him nearing the end of the backstretch … Sunday Silence then caught that rival with a rush approaching the stretch; held a narrow advantage into the stretch while under left handed urging and outgamed (Easy Goer) while repeatedly brushing with him when (jockey Pat Valenzuela) switched his whip to the right hand inside the final furlong.

"Easy Goer quickly reached a striking position (under jockey Pat Day) after breaking in the air and eased to the outside of horses at the first turn. He then moved boldly from the outside to catch front running Houston racing into the far turn, but was quickly replaced by a surging Sunday Silence, while dropping to the inside nearing the stretch. While under pressure from (Sunday Silence), Easy Goer came again under left handed urging to regain a brief lead approaching the final sixteenth; but he narrowly missed while brushing with the winner (through the final yards.)

That Preakness vividly lives in my mind's eye and frequently reappears without warning, without prompting, from cues seen on TV, or when the horses' names are mentioned out of the blue. The 1989 Preakness not only was a race for the ages, it was a race that has kept me believing in the sporting side of the greatest betting game man has ever invented. Every racing fan probably has a race like that to remember. What's yours?

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