In the light of the Kentucky Derby results I suppose you would have to conclude that the 80th running of the Preakness which takes place at Pimlico this week should boil down to another tantalizing duel between Fabius, the front runner, and Needles, the stretch runner.
And why, we might ask ourselves, should not Needles—who has literally done everything asked of him in competition this season—be fully capable of doing it once again at the expense of horses he has now licked in Florida and Kentucky? Well, on the surface, Needles should win—in fact he really must win if he is to prove himself a truly top colt. And yet, let's not forget that Pimlico is not Churchill Downs; form in race horses can change tremendously in the space of two weeks, and the Preakness has traditionally been just the sort of contest that has brought grief to many a horse fresh from the glory at Louisville.
Needles' people—let's face it—want to win the Preakness very much. Not so much, perhaps, for its monetary value as for the prestige that a win at Pimlico carries for any good 3-year-old. The Preakness is the second leg of the Triple Crown—two weeks after the Derby and four weeks before the Belmont. It is run over a course originally laid out in 1870 and governed by the Maryland Jockey Club, which, upon its organization at Annapolis back in 1743, became America's first racing association. When the Preakness field parades to the post this Saturday to the accompaniment of Maryland, My Maryland the vast majority of natives in the huge crowd won't have to be reminded that theirs is a state, a track and a race as rich in turf heritage as any in the land.
However, for all the nostalgia that will be in the air at Pimlico this week, there is a vitally important race to consider. And, for all the qualities observed in the most recent winner of the Kentucky Derby it doesn't seem unreasonable to come out and say that the 1956 Preakness might turn out to be the toughest race of Needles' 3-year-old career. Heavily .favored as he undoubtedly will be, Needles will be facing his biggest test. He could easily lose.
Let's analyze briefly. The Derby distance was a mile and a quarter. In the Preakness the distance is one-sixteenth of a mile shorter—shorter, in other words, by 110 yards. Now, the most significant point to be made about this is that when Needles was 110 yards away from the finish line at Churchill Downs the other afternoon he was still about one length behind Fabius, the Calumet colt he then proceeded to overtake and beat out by three-quarters of a length.
Equally important is the fact that even though Needles came from farther back (some experts estimate he was as far as 24 lengths off the pace at one point) than Jockey Dave Erb had bargained for, his run to the leaders was miraculously clear of interference. He had, it seems, a most unusual amount of what is called racing luck. Either that, or Needles is so gifted a horse that he may possess a special sort of competitive running sense which guides him like lightning through any existing holes in the pack ahead of him, or, when no opening appears, causes him to shift course instinctively to the outside of the track where only the swiftest of horses can ever hope to make up lost ground. Erb, by the way, thinks Needles has just this sort of instinctiveness, and at any rate he doesn't seem to be fearful in the least of the traffic problems. In talking about it the other day he said with typical Erblike confidence, "We're not interested in the rail. Let the rest of the field take the inside and all I want is the outside half of the track and a place to run."
This is all very well and fine, but if Erb and Needles are to get up on the wire in time this week they simply cannot afford to fall 20 or so lengths behind during the early running. It is too much ground to ask any horse to make up in this race. Luck has been on Needles' side in so many of his races that you'd think the tide must turn some day—as it did, for instance, last fall when he failed to get up in time to win the Garden State (won by Prince John over a very fast-closing Career Boy, with Needles third).
It goes without saying that a small Preakness field will work to Needles' advantage, and, judging from the caliber of his Derby opposition, it wouldn't appear that more than eight or 10 colts would have any chance whatsoever of beating him or keeping up with Fabius. But working possibly to his disadvantage will be the physical layout of Pimlico with its comparatively tight turns and a home stretch which is one-sixteenth of a mile shorter than the one in Kentucky.
But what about the opposition? The only colt that seems to merit serious consideration has to be Fabius. This good-looking son of Citation ticked off the first mile of the Derby in the near-record time of 1:36 4/5, and, as noted before, had not Needles so skillfully evaded trouble while running out his own last quarter in close to 24 seconds, Fabius would have surely won the whole pot. And now, at a shorter distance, how can a front runner with such blistering pace-setting ability be counted out? He can't, and one of the most enthusiastic supporters of this doctrine is young Willie Hartack who will ride Fabius again. After the Derby, when Willie was asked to comment on the race, he said, "Fabius didn't slow down a bit under me. Needles just speeded up. Needles won't have so long to get in gear next time, and meantime Fabius and I are going to be going places. It's up to him to catch us."
Three other old foes from Louisville will be back for another crack at the champion. They are Come On Red, the surprise third-place Derby finisher, Count Chic and No Regrets who wound up fourth and seventh respectively. The first two are strong stretch runners, while No Regrets faded badly in the Derby after trailing Fabius by only half a length at the end of the mile. Then, too, there may be Eiffel Blue, the front-running speed horse who finished second in last week's Withers (the winner, Oh Johnny, was not nominated for the Preakness) and probably Golf Ace, who, on the strength of a moral victory in the Wood Memorial, was made a supplementary nomination at a cost of $7,500—only later to run a most unimpressive sixth in the Withers.
The 80th Preakness may not boast the class of some of its predecessors, but it could provide one of the truly dramatic races of the whole season. If Needles wins, few will deny his great chance of taking next month's Belmont—and the Triple Crown.
EXTRA TROPHY FOR TRIPLE CROWN WINNER