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Coming on strong at the Weakness

A record run by Tank's Prospect gave the Preakness a big boost

In the weeks leading up to last Saturday's 110th running of the Preakness Stakes, the sounds heard most often around Pimlico Race Course were the gnashing of teeth and the rattling of sabres. High dudgeon was the order of the day as Chick Lang, the track's general manager, vowed to keep the Preakness safe from New Jersey and a local sheriff slapped a lien on the second favorite in the race. The weather matched the general tone of events—it rained almost all week on the Pimlico charade.

The Sturm und Drang began two weeks ago when Spend a Buck, the winner of the Kentucky Derby, opted to skip the Preakness and run in the Jersey Derby at Garden State. Then the Derby's second-place horse, Stephan's Odyssey, also decided to pass on Pimlico. As a result, the 11-horse field was considered so weak that the race was called the Weakness, the Peakless and the Black-Eyed Preakness. The Washington Post headlined a story PREAKNESS GALLOPS TOWARD MINOR STATUS. But by race time, the storm clouds had disappeared, both literally and metaphorically. Tank's Prospect, a handsome bay colt from California, collared favored Chiefs Crown at the wire and set a track record. Charades aside, it was one heck of a horse race.

"I rate him as good as any horse in America right now," said D. Wayne Lukas, the winner's trainer. "Some of you [the press] might take exception to that. By the way, you guys have a lot of headlines to change this afternoon. I heard it was a two horse match race." Most experts had felt the Preakness would come down to a duel between the favorite, Chiefs Crown, who finished third in the Kentucky Derby, and Eternal Prince, the speed in the race. The race started as planned; Eternal Prince jumped in front and scorched the first quarter in 22[2/5]. Entering the clubhouse turn, Chiefs Crown was fifth and Tank's Prospect eighth.

The Tank wasn't supposed to be quite that far back, but leaving the gate, his jockey, Pat Day, had brushed against another horse and lost his left stirrup. "It took me five or six jumps to get my foot back in the iron," he said later. "I couldn't help the horse and couldn't get him running like I'd have liked to." As Day moved Tank's Prospect into seventh entering the backstretch, Hajji's Treasure, a Cinderella horse from northern California, shattered bones in his right fore. But a race doesn't stop when a horse breaks down, and the Tank continued to move up.

"I was sitting on a lot of horse," Day said later. "As we turned in the stretch, I knew that I had Eternal Prince beat. And if we didn't run out of room, I knew that I was going to beat Chief's Crown." Ah, the Chief. He had challenged Eternal Prince on the far turn and was leading by a length at the top of the stretch, looking as if he had the race in his pocket. But Day started whipping his horse lefthanded, 19 strokes in all, and with each one he ate into the Chiefs lead. It was a heart-stopping duel that ended with Tank's Prospect a head in front in a record 1:53[3/5] for the 1[3/16]-mile distance.

The Preakness has long been considered the weak link in the Triple Crown, and that is perhaps why the Pimlico management overreacted to Spend a Buck's defection to New Jersey. When Robert Brennan, chairman of Garden State, promised a $2 million bonus to any 3-year-old who won the Cherry Hill Mile, the Garden State Stakes, the Kentucky Derby and the Jersey Derby, everyone figured the odds of that happening were about a zillion to one. Then Spend a Buck won the first three legs, and the huge bonus was within reach. When the horse's owner, Dennis Diaz, decided to forego a shot at the sacred Triple Crown, it shook the racing industry to the very roots of its complacency. Lang verbally bushwacked Brennan on a Baltimore radio station talk show, calling him, among other things, a "snake oil salesman."

The dust had scarcely settled from that confrontation when, the day before the Preakness, a lien was slapped on Eternal Prince by Fasig-Tipton, the horse auctioneers. That action and some erroneous news reports sent the most famous of Eternal Prince's owners, George Steinbrenner, into apoplexy. "I heard one newscast," said Steinbrenner, "saying that a lien had been posted because Brian Hurst [another owner] and I had not paid our feed bills. Can you imagine that?" In fact, the lien was against the Prince's trainer, Butch Lenzini, for money the sales company claims he owes them. Apologies subsequently were tendered by Fasig-Tipton for "overzealousness on the part of our legal counsel."

Lukas bought Tank's Prospect, a Mr. Prospector colt, for $625,000 at the 1983 Keeneland Summer sales for Eugene V. Klein, former owner of the San Diego Chargers. Klein had jumped into the horse business with typical enthusiasm in 1982, when he and two friends bought 20 broodmares. A year later he acquired Tank's Prospect, whom he named after Tank Younger, former fullback for the L.A. Rams and now the assistant general manager of the Chargers. Klein, a bear of a man, was ecstatic after the Preakness. "It's so thrilling," he said. "The horse looks like a fullback, and he runs like a fullback—only faster."

Tank's Prospect was due for some success. He finished second to Chiefs Crown in the Breeder's Cup Juvenile last November and didn't win his first stakes, the El Camino Real, until February. Lukas then ran him in the April 6 Santa Anita Derby, where he came in ninth. Lukas knew the horse had a problem immediately after the race. "There was something wrong with his breathing," he said. The colt had an entrapped epiglottis, which closed off his trachea. Surgery was performed on April 9, and 11 days later the Tank ran a brilliant race in the Arkansas Derby, winning by 6½ lengths. The next stop was the Kentucky Derby, where he finished seventh, a poor showing that Lukas blames on the track's hard surface.

Racing fans can look for Tank's Prospect and Chief's Crown—and maybe even Spend a Buck—at the Belmont Stakes in June. And they can probably count on Stephan's Odyssey and Proud Truth, winner of the Florida Derby, to be there, too. "These horses will beat each other all season," said Lukas. "This is a great year, but no one wants to go out on a limb and guess who's the best horse. It will take a lot more than the spring classics to sort this bunch out."



The Tank (center) made tracks in the stretch as he beat the Prince (right) and the Chief (left) in 1:53[2/5].



Klein and Day reached the Pimlico winner's circle because Tank's Prospect (6) reached back and caught Chief's Crown.