After Northern Dancer's brilliant victory in the Preakness, three happy men hold the trophies that signify capture of the second jewel in racing's Triple Crown—and look ahead to the contest for the third, the Belmont Stakes on June 6. They are Owner E. P. Taylor, Jockey Bill Hartack and Trainer Horatio Luro, whose perfect teamwork secured the triumph. At far left is the permanent trophy for the race, first run in 1873.
The trouble with racing fans, including thousands among the 35,975 who were at Pimlico to watch the 88th running of the Preakness last Saturday, is that they simply don't believe what they see. Two weeks before this second leg of the Triple Crown for 3-year-olds—a mile and three-sixteenths over a track that has baffled and buffaloed many a top colt—the horse fraternity had witnessed a classic Kentucky Derby. Wise men figured that Canada's Northern Dancer, maybe the second best horse in the field, had been lucky to beat California's Hill Rise. In the days following the Derby the professors of past performance totted up a hundred reasons why Bill Shoemaker shouldn't have lost the race in Louisville to Bill Hartack on Northern Dancer. Shoemaker himself, still insisting that Hill Rise was the better horse, agreed with them. "I had Northern Dancer in a trap in the Derby," he said a few hours before the Preakness. "And when he got out, that was the race. My horse simply didn't have the move in him at the right time. He's still the best horse—or at least we'll find out if he is today."
Shoemaker has been right more often than not in his long and brilliant career, but last week at Pimlico he proved that as a handicapper of the racehorses he rides he still has a little to learn. In the Derby, after overcoming more trouble than Agent 007 in the clutches of a SMERSH blonde, he lost by barely a neck. In the Preakness he rode Hill Rise perfectly, encountered no trouble whatsoever, made a carefully calculated run at Northern Dancer at an opportune time and, for all his efforts, finished third. Hill Rise was a head behind second-place The Scoundrel at the wire, and more than two lengths behind the same fantastic little Dancer, at 2 to 1.
Northern Dancer's victory was a superb accomplishment. He has developed such a store of skills that on June 6 at Aqueduct he will be an odds-on favorite to win the mile-and-a-half Belmont Stakes and become the first Triple Crown winner since 1948, Citation's year. If he does, he will be only the ninth in the long history of American classic racing. In fact, the more one watches Northern Dancer run—and win—the more it seems likely that this colt, owned by Edward P. Taylor, the Toronto industrial baron who looks like an also-ran in a Sidney Greenstreet screen test, is a genuinely great racehorse. He has now run 16 times in his short career, and the little fellow (only 15 hands 2 inches) has won 13 of those races, finished second twice and third once. In other words, he has never been out of the money. He has won $519,072, to put him in 50th place on the alltime money-earning list, although he will not be truly 3 years old until May 27. He can do anything on a racetrack, and that includes pulling the starting gate.
More than anything, this Preakness victory was the result of precision teamwork among Trainer Horatio Luro, Jockey Hartack and, of course, Northern Dancer himself. It will go down as a triumph of patient training and perfect riding of a horse that seems to be bred with just about everything required of a champion. Among these admirable assets is the ability to take kindly to rating, to move with amazing acceleration when asked, and to handle for a good rider as gently as a 15-year-old piebald in the St. Agnes Church Sunday charity horse show.
In the past Luro's training methods have been criticized by many speed-conscious U.S. horsemen. Use the clock, our trainers usually say, and work a horse hard and fast. "I don't agree," says Luro with deep conviction. "Long gallops are the European method to develop a classic horse, and I think that is right." Luro galloped his horse long and leisurely to prepare him for a track-record Kentucky Derby performance, and his system paid off with a blazing 24-second last quarter that hadn't been equaled since Whirlaway did it in 1941.
The problem for all Preakness trainers, then, became one of maintaining the competitive edge in their horses for exactly two weeks. The interval had to include a shipping period and a move to an entirely new and different kind of racing surface. The Churchill Downs track was hard and fast. It had to be for Northern Dancer to run the mile and a quarter in two minutes flat. The Pimlico strip, says Luro, "has more sand and is deeper, and there's no question that it is more tiring for any kind of horse. But the point is that I went to Pimlico with a horse that was completely fit. He was fit to go as far as you would ever want a horse to go."
So, at Pimlico, while some trainers followed Luro's own patient system of galloping more than working, Luro went them one better. "At Churchill Downs I used to gallop my horse between one and a half and two miles on days when I didn't 'work' him," he said. "At Pimlico we galloped at least two miles and sometimes between two and a half and three miles. The theory is simply to train longer, even though the race distance is shorter, with less speed. Train longer to get a horse fit, or rather to keep him fit, on the basis that Pimlico is going to be more tiring on him than Churchill Downs."
Luro follows his theories to the letter. He finished off his 14-day training period completely satisfied that Northern Dancer would run as well as, if not better than, in the Derby. When a newsman suggested to him that his Canadian-bred colt must have tailed off since Louisville, he snapped back, "If this horse was not in perfect condition he would not be in the race." On Friday The Dancer "blew out" his final three-eighths of a mile in 35[4/5] seconds "just to sharpen his speed so that Hartack will have a horse ready to go whenever he wants him to," said the Se�or. On the same day Trainer Bill Finnegan timed George Pope's Hill Rise in a 40-second blowout over the same distance.
Preakness Day was a beauty. It was warm but not hot in crab-cake country as the six-horse field (including, for the first time within memory, not a single Kentucky-bred colt), went to the infield grass course to be saddled. George Pope walked out to the temporary paddock and beamed. "The goose hangs high today," he said. "These are the best horses, a small field, and they're going a distance of ground. That's exactly what we want."