Most of the lively controversies revolving around recent renewals of the Preakness have had double centers of interest. First, naturally, came speculation over what would happen when the leading Kentucky Derby finishers sprang out for the next round. And then the physical differences between Pimlico—with its tight turns and short stretch and its total distance 1/16 of a mile shorter than the Derby route—and Churchill Downs gave both professional and amateur strategists full opportunity to envision a spectacular new ending to the second of our 3-year-old Triple Crown classics.
Well, the 83rd Preakness coming up in the land of the Maryland crab cake this week is definitely going to have a different ending from the Lambeth Walk-type stretch dance at Louisville, in which English-bred Tomy Lee nosed out Sword Dancer. Tomy Lee, weary and light of flesh after his courageous victory, has gone home to California, leaving Sword Dancer as the obvious Preakness favorite. Furthermore, no longer will a short run home stand up as a valid excuse for any future Preakness losers, for Pimlico has recently moved its finish line 220 feet farther down the track. The stretch now runs a total of 1,170 feet to make it the ninth longest in the country (longer, incidentally, than Belmont Park).
Naturally, it is a shame that Tomy Lee won't be on hand to defend his laurels as the reigning champion of his division and to aim at becoming the ninth horse in history to win the Triple Crown. When it was first announced that Tomy Lee was passing up the Preakness to return to his Hollywood Park home grounds, some critics were quick to put the finger on his stable for lack of sportsmanship. Considering that Owner Fred Turner Jr. and Trainer Frank Childs were sporting enough to ship Tomy Lee all the way from California to the East Coast last fall to challenge First Landing, such accusations now are stupid indeed. What has been overlooked by critics of Tomy Lee's managers is simple consideration for the colt and for the personal wishes of his owner. In the case of Tomy Lee the specific plan had always been to take dead aim on the Kentucky Derby. To achieve the victory, the colt was worked hard and raced hard. Somewhat unsound to begin with, Tomy Lee was hardly a picture of robust health the morning after the Derby, and some observers thought he looked sore. When I brought up the subject with Owner Turner last week, he was as frank as a man can be. "His three races in Kentucky in three weeks took a lot out of him, and after the Derby—although I maintain he was not sore or lame after the race—there seemed little point in going on with him and possibly doing the little horse some harm."
Turner also took time to clear up another point for those who persist in questioning his motives. "I don't give a damn for prestige or money. I don't want to exploit Tomy Lee or win the Triple Crown. The East hasn't been particularly good to me [a reference to Tomy Lee's disqualification in last year's Champagne]. I want to run Tomy Lee where I want to and when I want to—and nothing more."
If one criticizes owners and trainers for the seemingly contagious practice of overracing horses to reap the rewards of inflated purses, then it seems only fair to commend an owner who recognizes that his horse needs a well-earned rest instead of another immediate try at a winner's check. Tomy Lee is in good hands.
So is the Derby runner-up Sword Dancer, and if there's anything about to run by this little Brookmeade Stable color-bearer in the Preakness, that colt is going to have to be as fit as they come and as game as a treed coon. The season's best "classic" type runner may as yet not have appeared on the national scene, but until he does—and until Tomy Lee re-enters the picture—Sword Dancer must stand as the most likely prospect to gain further acclaim. In this topsyturvy 3-year-old year, when few of the leaders seem capable of winning two major races in succession, it is apparent that most trainers have pointed for one big stake and then taken chances that their horses would remain fresh and fit for whatever was to follow. Thus it was, for example, that Troilus was at the very peak of condition for his victory in the Flamingo at Hialeah. The same applied to Easy Spur in the Florida Derby and Manassa Mauler in the Wood Memorial. However, when Tomy Lee set a track record for seven furlongs at Keeneland, then won the Blue Grass there in near-record time only nine days before winning the Derby, it marked the perfect example of one way to keep a horse fit and keen over a period of time.
Whereas in Tomy Lee's case Trainer Frank Childs chose hard work and actual racing to maintain that edge, Brookmeade Stable all season long has chosen the alternate route of light work and few races for Sword Dancer. From the time, 10 years ago, when he first went to work for his father, Preston, as a 25-year-old eager-to-learn assistant Brookmeade trainer, Elliott Burch discovered that rarely are two horses trained exactly the same. "My father taught me," said Elliott the other afternoon (taking a well-earned breather from a roughhouse with his three children outside his Floral Park, N.Y. house), "that you should train a horse the way the horse likes to be trained. With Sword Dancer, who is a keen, nervous horse, I learned in Florida that he doesn't particularly like fast works, and in order to avoid long works which might tend to dull his natural speed, I concentrated on a methodical program of trying to pick up speed and distance at the same time. It may sound strange, but the farthest Sword Dancer ever worked to retain his speed was one mile; his heart carries him the rest of the way. With him the only problem was keeping fit once we knew we had him fit. He's fit now to run to the Rocky Mountains."
The problem with a colt like Sword Dancer, who has a tremendous burst of speed, is to know precisely when to apply this speed. In both the Florida and Kentucky derbies, for example, the final results might have been different had Sword Dancer's jocks saved their best licks for the final quarter instead of pushing the throttle before the turn for home. "Actually," says Burch, "he hasn't really been rated this year, and I think with Shoemaker on him in the Preakness we'll see him rated so he has the same finishing kick as anyone else. For I know this colt can use his speed anywhere."
Sword Dancer's natural speed notwithstanding, this race won't be his without a struggle. That struggle may come from First Landing, Royal Orbit, King Ranch's Black Hills or even from Emil Dolce's Manassa Mauler. As for First Landing, his trainer and jockey, Casey Hayes and Eddie Arcaro, feel his third-place finish in the Derby was not as bad as it looked to bettors who sent him off as the 7-to-2 favorite. "It was the first time ever," says Hayes, "that he got off to such a slow start. We had bad luck for a lot of the running after that."
"Unless he just doesn't want to run," adds Arcaro, "there's only one excuse for the way he ran in the Derby. The long wait in the gate—he was third into the gate of the 17 runners and waited nearly four minutes before the actual start—made him relax too much, and although he broke all right he just didn't get to running like he always has. A lot of people are giving up on this dude. I'm not giving up on him yet. First Landing has a hell of a shot at the Preakness. He could have a lot to say about it, believe me."
TRAINER ELLIOTT BURCH packs an ambitious 138 pounds totaled by sons Bill, 5, Danny, 7, and daughter Jan, 23 months, assisted in saddling up by her mother Phyllis. Sword Dancer, with Willie Shoemaker up, carries 12 pounds less in the 83rd Preakness.