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Preakness Offers Opportunity, Not Panic

by Jeremy Plonk

May 13, 2019

The world didn’t end in 1982, nor did the final nail hammer home in the horse racing coffin. Heck, we hadn’t even discovered trifectas or simulcasting by that point. But when Eddie Gregson announced longshot Kentucky Derby winner Gato Del Sol would skip the Preakness, and only 7 horses showed up to compete at Old Hilltop, imagine the potential social media outrage had that even existed back then. But, alas, Twitter founder Jack Dorsey was only 5. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg wouldn’t be born for another 2 years nearly to the day.

Saturday’s 144th running of the Preakness won’t have Kentucky Derby winner Country House due to a cough. It won’t have Kentucky Derby winner Maximum Security due to a swerve. And it won’t be the end of the world, of racing, or the Preakness itself. Since Gato Del Sol’s connections opted not to run in the middle jewel of 1982, the race soon after lost 1985 Kentucky Derby winner Spend A Buck to a competing purse bonus in the Jersey Derby. And in 1996, Derby winner Grindstone was injured in victory, retired and never raced again.

We’ve been there, done that, when it comes to a Preakness without the Kentucky Derby victor. Nobody wants it; make no mistake. But events are bigger than horses, trainers and owners. Just because it hasn’t happened in 23 years, doesn’t mean the reaction to it warrants hysteria.

A year after Gato Del Sol said no thanks to the Preakness, the race featured a dozen runners in 1983 including Kentucky Derby one-two finishers Sunny’s Halo and Desert Wine. The nose-thumbing given by the connections of Spend A Buck was followed up in 1986 by the likes of Derby champ Ferdinand against Louisville third Broad Brush and even-money beaten favorite Snow Chief, who would exact revenge. And if Grindstone’s 1996 injury-induced absence had any hangover whatsoever, you’d be hard-pressed to find a single person who doesn’t think the ’97 Preakness was one of the race’s all-time greatest editions with Silver Charm, Captain Bodgit and Free House all back for a rematch with newcomer Touch Gold added to the mix.

So while this may be a Preakness lacking the Kentucky Derby carryover we crave, it’s going to make up for it, if not this year, then probably next… or very, very soon. Without Gato Del Sol, the ’82 Preakness allowed 16-year-old jockey “Cowboy” Jack Kaenel to transcend generations when he outrode and snookered the legendary Bill Shoemaker aboard runner-up Linkage, the odds-on favorite. It left a mark in the history book even in the absence of the Derby winner. The 1985 Preakness lacked the bombastic Cam Gambolati and his Spend A Buck, but it opened the door for soft-spoken Pat Day to win his first of 9 career Triple Crown victories aboard Tank’s Prospect, who was D. Wayne Lukas’ second of 14 career jewel earners. And without Grindstone in 1996, a media-friendly newbie to the Triple Crown trail seemed poised to win his first Triple Crown race with Cavonnier, the 8-5 favorite. But the Derby’s nose-decision runner-up mustered only a fourth-place finish at Old Hilltop for Bob Baffert as veterans Nick Zito (Louis Quatorze), Sonny Hine (Skip Away) and D. Wayne Lukas (Editor’s Note) ran 1-2-3 in a Preakness that certainly did not lack starpower.

I’m not cocky enough to walk around this horse racing game and act like I know what we’re in store for at the 2019 Preakness, much less future years. Maybe trainer Kelly Rubley (Alwaysmining) becomes the first woman to win the event and this Preakness gets its forever-moment. Perhaps War of Will rebounds from his ‘wronging’ in Louisville and it’s a memorable act of redemption.

We don’t know who or what may emerge; that’s why we’re drawn to the game and the Triple Crown series. But one or two decisions by the stewards or in the shedrow in a two-week span do not make a trend or a looming disaster. There are 144 years of this race to defend against that short-sightedness.