Behind the wooden fence that runs alongside the slakes barn at Pimlico Race Course, as small knots of Preakness revelers strolled past sipping bubbly last Saturday night, a golden chestnut with a white blaze on his face was burying his nose in a deep green nig of grass and tearing voraciously at it. The colt, Red Bullet, lifted his head now and again to listen as his 51-year-old groom, Curly Snell, regaled visitors with Red Bullet's exploits and promised them mat the best was yet to come.
Not incidentally, fastened to that white fence, at intervals, were 11 yellow plaques, each bearing the name of a Triple Crown winner—from the first, Sir Barton (1919), through the last, Affirmed (1978). Since his dominating Kentucky Derby victory on May 6, Fusaichi Pegasus had been hailed as a worthy candidate to become the 12th winner of the series. But no, another plaque would not be screwed to the fence this year. It was 7:40 p.m., and Red Bullet had just taken care of that. About two hours earlier, on a mud-slick racetrack soaked by two days of cold rains, the Bullet won the Preakness by nearly four widening lengths and left seven other starters, including Pegasus, floating like scraps of paper in his wake. Pegasus persevered on class alone to finish second. All that was left to hope for now was the prospect of an epic rivalry.
"He's my boy!" crowed Snell as the Bullet stopped to listen. "He hasn't let me down yet. Now he'll win the Belmont. Bring Pegasus on again at Belmont Park. It'll be like Ali and Frazier. They each won one and then had the showdown. That's what the Belmont will be. The Thrilla in Manila!"
Snell looked his colt up and down and then added, "And this is Ali."
Little in sports is more uncertain than the outcome of a horse race, and virtually nothing bedevils handicappers more than the prospect of a muddy racing surface and the unpredictable effects it will have on 1,000-pound animals racing at speeds up to 40 mph. In the two weeks between the Derby and the Preakness, Neil Drysdale, the trainer of Pegasus, had done everything imaginable to give his horse a chance to make history. Drysdale had kept him in Kentucky for 10 days, in the quieter precincts of Churchill Downs, and when he and the colt finally arrived in Baltimore on May 17, three days before the race, Drysdale stabled the bay in a cinder-block shed far from the traditional Preakness barn and the hurly-burly of its gathering media hordes. "I'm just trying to do what is best for the horse," Drysdale said.
Only the weather was out of his control. Yet even when it became clear mat the surface would be a mud pie on Saturday, Drysdale's confidence didn't waver. After all, Pegasus was a son of Mr. Prospector and "Mr. Prospectors do well on off tracks," he noted. Also, the colt had trained well in the mud and had won the April 15 Wood Memorial in commanding style on a soupy Aqueduct oval. If a handicapper questioned whether the colt could summon yet another brilliant performance—a third in only five weeks—the prevailing attitude among rival horsemen was that it would take an act of Zeus to clip the wings of Pegasus. "The only way he can lose is if they load him in the gate backward," quipped Bob Baffert, the trainer of Captain Steve.
In the midst of this resignation, Joe Orseno issued the most stinging of dissents. Orseno, the trainer of Red Bullet, was not at Pimlico to run for second money, and he was among those who voiced loud doubts that the favorite could duplicate his Derby effort. "To come back in two weeks and repeat that, it's going to be tough," Orseno said three days before the race.
Yet Orseno appeared to be whistling in the dark in his quest to win the Preakness. He had never run Red Bullet as a 2-year-old, which raised questions about the horse's seasoning. What's more, though Red Bullet won his first three races this winter, including the March 19 Gotham at Aqueduct, Fusaichi Pegasus had smoked him like a salmon at the Wood, blowing past him in the final eighth of a mile to beat him by more than four lengths. The result left suspicions about Red Bullet's ability to win around two turns. Orseno, however, argued that his jockey, Alex Solis, had ridden him too close to the burners of a hot early pace in the Wood, and that by the time Pegasus had ranged alongside him, the Bullet was spent.
"I was out of horse at the eighth pole," Orseno said last week. "He was staggering to the wire. I know with the right kind of ride, we have to be four or five lengths better. I think it will be closer."
What Orseno did next was almost unprecedented in modern Triple Crown racing. The Wood had exhausted his horse, Orseno said, so he and the colt's owner, Frank Stronach, decided to pass up the Derby and target the Preakness instead. Not since Deputed Testamony in 1983 had a horse that skipped the first leg of the Triple Crown won the second. "Would anybody have skipped the Derby with a horse that has this kind of talent?" Orseno asked. Only Drysdale conies immediately to mind, but this was the year he had a horse for history. Then, inside 100 yards, he didn't.