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Even in a year when the 3-year-olds are a notch or two above average, it is unusual for the Preakness to be considered a more definitive race than the Kentucky Derby. And yet this week's 86th Preakness at Pimlico may generate more excitement and drama than were created by that record-breaking mile and a quarter at Churchill Downs two weeks ago (SI, May 14).
Take these items into account: 1) Of the first six to finish in the Derby only Sir Ribot, who was fourth at Churchill Downs, will be missing in the Preakness lineup. 2) Jaipur, winner of the Gotham and the Withers, will be at Pimlico, and so will Vimy Ridge, a victor in both his 1962 starts. 3) Pimlico's track, with a regulation cushion instead of a top surface borrowed from the New Jersey Turnpike, will offer Preakness runners some sharper turns and a shorter stretch than Churchill Downs. Therefore, in a race which is a sixteenth of a mile shorter than the Derby, there are some tactical problems to be solved, especially for a stretch runner.
The Derby winner, Decidedly, should be the favorite. His ride at Louisville, by Hartack, was absolutely faultless. Bill played the waiting game to perfection, and when the speed in front of him—Ridan, Sunrise County and even Roman Line—began to gasp from the withering pace they had held for nine furlongs, Hartack rolled home to an easy two-and-a-quarter-length victory on a superbly fit horse.
In a shorter race on a Pimlico-type course, a front-runner with real speed has more of an advantage than he has at Churchill Downs. Bold Ruler discovered this when he won in 1957. Bally Ache certainly did in 1960, and last year only a brilliant last sixteenth of a mile by Carry Back prevented Globemaster (who led by four lengths entering the stretch) from stealing the race from end to end.
So if Ridan, Roman Line, Sunrise County—and even Jaipur—elect to go for it from the start they are going to make it especially difficult for Hartack and Decidedly to nail all or any of them at the finish. Also, if Manuel Ycaza can do a better job of controlling Ridan going into and around the first turn, he could be the toughest horse to beat at this distance.
Sunrise County, wearing blinkers, ran straight for Shoemaker in the Derby, but this time his rider will be Milo Valenzuela, while Shoe (who has also been aboard Jaipur recently) rides Cicada at Aqueduct the same day. Bobby Ussery gets the mount on Jaipur. Although he won the Withers handily last week, Jaipur may be stepping into more than he can handle at the moment. After bruising a heel in the Gotham in April, Jaipur could have been excused for being a little short for the Withers, but he got his mile in the decent time of 1:35 3/5 just the same. Shoemaker said after the race that Jaipur felt to him like a better horse than Sunrise County, but he added that this handsome dark bay Nasrullah colt has a tendency to loaf. Whether this comes from being lazy or too smart, Jaipur will find out Saturday that loafing will not be tolerated in the Preakness.
It is possible that Jaipur will not be at his best until the June 9 Belmont, and the same may be said for Vimy Ridge. Still, there is enough speed in this Preakness field to lower Nashua's 1955 track mark of 1:54 3/5. And if Decidedly, just now reaching the peak of his form, can put away the speed boys for the second time this month you'll know we have a genuine champion in our midst.