The Preakness

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The 134th Preakness. Alcohol ban in the infield. Magna bankrupt. Will this be the last Preakness run in Maryland? It’s a good one, at least, Rachel Alexandra, the Oaks winner against Mine That Bird, the Derby winner, and 11 others. Overcast at 8 in the morning. Hot. No air.

The stakes barn, the hub of the Preakness, buzzes. Bob Baffert and Wayne Lukas hold court. Steve Asmussen sits down with the Racing Form, his dad and a buddy under the tent at the end of the barn. His last piece of peace for the day.

Helping Mike Penna and HRRN Radio on their Saturday morning show. Three of us spout off about our opinions. Mike won’t let go of Derby favorite Friesan Fire, despite his 42-length drubbing. Rollie Hoyt goes with Rachel Alexandra. I’m a contrarian and go with Musket Man, although I temper it by saying Rachel Alexandra should win the race.

Gray. Gray skies.

The first runs in complete anonymity. No one watches. Races are not meant to be running at 10:15 in the morning. Someone asks, “Who won the first?” Didn’t know it had run yet.

Pimlico somehow cards the Allaire duPont Distaff Stakes as the second race, I watch it with Charlie Boden of Darley Stable and Jose Cuevas, assistant for Bobby Frankel. It’s still quiet. Darley’s Skylighter puts her clamp on the grade II stakes from the start. Easy money, she gallops, pays nothing.

Charlie and I stand outside the paddock for the third, maidens on the grass. He’s handicapping the race, checking off horses because of form and numbers. Cricket Bedford, in a flash of red, and Neil Morris head to the paddock, following Kinross Farm’s Old Timer. Charlie and I go through the field. I circle the workout under Old Timer on Charlie’s program. Two of six, in a training flat at a place called FX. Good Night Shirt won it, I tell Charlie. He doesn’t need to hear any more. My cell phone starts vibrating at the sixteenth pole. Old Timer wins and pays $29. Charlie has the triple, I have $50 to win, Kinross Skippy needs a Brinks truck. The weekend is free.

Mike Smith and Calvin Borel meet in the jocks’ room and Borel gives Smith insight into Mine That Bird. “He hopped when the doors opened in the Derby, nothing bad, just hopped. He’s a good colt, believe me. Don’t do nothing wrong.” They shake hands, man hug and it’s back to business.

I interview Smith, who picks up the ride on Mine That Bird when Borel opts for Rachel. I ask Mike what he’s going to say to Calvin when he passes him inside the eighth pole of the Preakness. “Mine That Birdddd,” Smith says, without a missing a beat. Like, “Mind your back,” as you get run over by a runaway dog.

No Advantage upsets the fourth, Motown Shuffle mows them down in the fifth, Sumacha’hot rallies in the sixth and the day isn’t half over.

Paddy Neilson and Turney McKnight make their annual Pimlico appearance. It sure isn’t Radnor. Dr. Fisher laughs at his quote in the paper, the one that said, “Times have changed” on Derby Day. He says it again on Preakness Day.

The HRRN local Kentucky broadcast launches at 4 and Mike Trombetta talks about his two horses in the Hirsch Jacobs. He manages a second with Not For Silver as the winner, Everyday Heroes has railbirds running for cover as he lugs out all the way down the lane. The undefeated colt goes with a run-out bit. Understandable and ineffective.

Todd Pletcher sweeps the Woodlawn Stakes with Affirmatif, a star in the making. Chiseled from stone, the son of Unbridled’s Song. Meet my buddy, Tim Keefe, in the paddock for the Maryland Sprint Handicap. It’s our annual tradition on Preakness weekend. Now 7, it wouldn’t seem the same without Celtic Innis running on Maryland’s big weekend. Tim’s nervous, the horse is cool. He runs huge again, finishing third. At 7, he’s the oldest horse in the field and still clicking his bankroll, one hard-earned check at a time.

Right out of a Degas painting, Parading gallops to the start of the Dixie. OK, get back into radio mode as our national broadcast begins at 5:00. Preakness talk. Preakness talk. Preakness talk. We barely catch the call of the Dixie, Parading gallops.

Back to the stakes barn for the walk. NBC hovers. Horsemen collect at the mouth of the barn to try and see if they can see the cat in the 13 Preakness starters. Tone It Down, local horse, starts it off. Musket Man still holds his flesh. Friesan Fire comes next. Slowly, but surely, they all begin the walk. Rachel Alexandra, fittingly, comes out last. Mine That Bird walks coolly to the turf course. The crowd yells for him, but nothing like in years past. Quiet, almost. Is it the Bird or is it the ban (of alcohol) in the infield. Chip Woolley crutches along beside his horse, doesn’t matter to the cowboy from New Mexico.

Papa Clem boils over as he hits the turf. Rachel Alexandra heads for cover inside the Pimlico paddock. Mine That Bird takes it all in.

Derek Ryan wants redemption from the Derby and tells me that on the radio. I hate to lose, he says. Then gnaws on a cigarette.

Finally, they’re all here. Thirteen of them in all, hit the track, Maryland My Maryland envelops the place. It starts to spit rain.

Big Drama doesn’t like the scene and fights it in the gate. The gate crew backs him out and tries again. Rachel Alexandra breaks to the right, then rights herself and angles from her outside perch.

It’s over.

She lobs along in front, going plenty fast but plenty in control. Mine That Bird is the only one closing any ground. For a moment, for a moment, you think maybe he’s going to make it close. The little horse validates his Derby. Rachel Alexandra exclamation points her Oaks.

The first filly to win the Preakness since . . . yeah that long. She’s a freak. Borel rejoices. Asmussen exhales. Jess Jackson loves it.

She goes to the test barn. They go to the podium. I go to work.

Wrestle a quote from Mine That Bird’s owner, Mark Allen. Then wait for Borel and Smith in the jocks’ room. Walk home from the test barn behind Rachel Alexandra. Get 10 minutes alone with Asmussen, amazing.

“She’s deserves the credit, not me, she did it.”

The Preakness party at the stakes barn rocks into the night. Asmussen cuts the cake. Woolley stares at his horse. It’s dark.

Nobody’s disappointed. It was good for racing. Good for the soul.