BALTIMORE — There is a narrative awaiting oxygen in which the Preakness is just a very big horse race in the middle of May. In which it is not dependent on the bigger race that precedes it or tethered to the sometimes-bigger race that follows; and not described disparagingly in terms of which horses are not participating, rather than glowingly in terms of which ones are. In which it is not subsumed by the need for a story larger than its own. In which its crumbling physical home (not for nothing, it’s been crumbling for a while now and still standing, obstinate, as if it has heard all the disrespect and wants to prove a point) and uncertain future are made less relevant by what transpires on the racetrack in the here and now.
In which the race is the thing, all by itself.
Early Saturday evening at Pimlico Race Course, this is what transpired: A horse named Early Voting, who did not run in the Kentucky Derby, won the 147th Preakness in just the fourth race of his life and the first at a track other gritty Aqueduct, right next door to JFK Airport on the edge of Jamaica Bay. He is owned by a man who was once a little boy right here in Baltimore, just a few blocks from the track, and then went on and did big things. He is trained by a man who was once a boy in upstate New York, and snuck into Saratoga Race Course by slithering sideways through a gap in a fence, and then went on and did big things. Déjà vu: It’s the same owner and trainer who won the 2017 Preakness with a similarly fresh horse.
All of this is a nice story and a sweet story. A racing story. A human story and an equine story. And more: Winning jockey Jose Ortiz was hit with waves of emotion at the finish. “Dream come true for any rider,” he said. Is it story enough to allow the Preakness to stand on four feet, like a wobbly foal? That is another question, subject to the whims of an insistent public and the bent of recent history.
Like so many foundational sporting events in America, when the gates to Pimlico Race Course were thrown open Saturday morning, it had been three years since the Preakness was whole, in all its bacchanalian splendor and socio-economic disconnect (a big white, wealthy sporting event in a much poorer, largely black neighborhood. Read this from Baltimore poet Wallace Lane, who grew up near Pimlico). There were almost no fans at the October 2020 Preakness, and just 10,000 a year ago. On Saturday, a crowd came to Old Hilltop in smothering, 94-degree heat. Three popular bands also came to entertain. And nine solid racehorses to run. Maybe eight. Okay, seven. Fine, six.
Longshot Kentucky Derby winner Rich Strike, whose shocking victory at Churchill Downs infused racing with a desperately needed joy, most pointedly did not come. Instead, 800 miles away on Saturday morning, Rich Strike worked a nifty half-mile in just over 47 seconds, in preparation for an announced start in the Belmont Stakes on June 11. Nevertheless, afterward, trainer Eric Reed doubled down on his decision to skip the Preakness: “I just don’t think he would’ve been mentally ready to run against those horses again.” Reed has not wavered.
Rich Strike was the first healthy Derby winner to bypass the Preakness – and a chance at the Triple Crown – since Spend A Buck in 1985. There were others, including five in the 1950s alone, but that was before the Triple Crown was heavily packaged and marketed in the aftermath of the Secretariat-Seattle Slew-Affirmed 70s, and before the 37-year drought that held the sport hostage until American Pharoah’s triple in 2015. The Derby winner’s advance to Baltimore became the overriding theme of every Preakness. Including this one, accentuated by the sheer madness of Rich Strike’s win, at 80-1 odds a day after getting into the field from the also eligible list and on a five-race losing streak. Come on.
In Rich Strike’s absence, there were possibilities. There was 86-year-old D. Wayne Lukas, back at Pimlico with filly Secret Oath, 42 years after he upset Derby-winning filly Genuine Risk with Codex, the first of his 14 Triple Crown race wins. (Thirty minutes before post time, Lukas leaned against a low wall in the indoor saddling paddock and went back in time, “We saddled Codex outdoors, because they didn’t give you an option back then.”). There was Epicenter, the Derby favorite who ran bravely into the teeth of that race’s suicidal pace and hung on for second, passed – decisively — by Rich Strike in the final 100 yards. “I’ll never get over that one,” said Epicenter’s trainer, Steve Asmussen. “But you want the opportunity to try again.”
And there was Early Voting. In 2017, owner and Baltimore native Seth Klarman and trainer Chad Brown had skipped the Kentucky Derby with Cloud Computing, who, like Early Voting, had run only three races, all at Aqueduct. He won the Preakness, defeating Derby winner Always Dreaming. Early Voting had won a maiden race in December and the Withers – an early Derby prep race – in February, before getting caught at the wire by Mo Donegal in the Wood Memorial, among the series of final preps.
Brown, 43, whose hometown is Mechanicville, a one time mill town on the Hudson River 16 miles from Saratoga Springs, might have been tempted to try Early Voting in the Derby. He was not. “When you start participating in the Kentucky Derby enough,” said Brown. “You realize what a tough race it is with 20 horses. Sometimes it’s not pretty. These horses need time physically and mentally, and it can really cost you a good part of your three-year-old year if you swing and miss. This horse [Early Voting] just didn’t have the experience. It really wasn’t that hard a decision.” Also this: Brown went to the Derby with Blue Grass Stakes prep winner Zandon, second choice in the betting, and, ultimately, the third-place finisher.
Klarman, 65, who grew up on Whitney Street, near Pimlico, and then went to Cornell and Harvard Business School and became wealthy as a hedge fund manager, trusts Brown implicitly, and always carries the modest expectations of his youth. “Horses are expensive,” he said. “And I didn’t grow up with a lot of resources.”
The race plan was simple: Early Voting is fast and the Pimlico surface was favoring speed all day. “We were prepared to go to the lead,” said Brown. “And the way the track was playing all day, it would have been foolish not to plan on going to the lead.” Armagnac, and jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr. (Jose’s brother), went to the lead. Armagnac is among the Bob Baffert-trained horses transferred to his former assistant, Tim Yakteen, so that they would be eligible for Triple Crown races. Armagnac ambled through a quarter mile in 24.32 seconds and a half in 47.44, jogging fractions. Early Voting sat outside. “I was thrilled with that,” said Brown. “I relayed to Seth several times that this horse doesn’t need the lead, and he said to me at that point, ‘Well, you got your wish.’”
Jose Ortiz said, “On the back side, it just felt like we were drilling in the morning.”
For Epicenter, the 6-5 favorite, and Secret Oath, who along with Early Voting went off at 5-1 (although Secret Oath was fractionally the second choice), the Preakness experience unfolded much differently. From the gate, Epicenter slid sideways and then was squeezed back before jockey Joel Rosario drifted to the rail into eighth place. Behind such a slow pace, it was a nearly hopeless start. “You’ve got to leave the gate,” said Asmussen. “Where he was early, and they go twenty-four and one [fifth, an old racing measure], [Rosario] just left him too much to do. I was past surprised. I was disappointed.” The outcome was not a complete loss: Epicenter dug in on the rail and finished second, beaten by only 1 ¼ lengths. That narrow margin only made the poor start sting more.
Secret Oath’s style is to rally from behind, but again, that is difficult when the horses in front are running slowly and not getting tired. Here, she broke last, rallied sharply on the turn and tired, finishing fourth. Lukas said, “It’s hard to run down the leader with slow fractions like that.”
After leaving the quarter pole, Jose Ortiz twice looked behind himself. Trying to find Epicenter, trying to find Secret Oath. And? “I didn’t see nobody,” said Ortiz, whose only previous Triple Crown win came on Tapwrit in the 2017 Belmont. “I just said I’m going to bide my time now.” When Epicenter applied the slightest pressure, Early Voting responded. No surprise, said Brown. “He’s going to fight all the way to the wire,” said Brown. “He’s like a bar fighter.”
His next bar fight, however, will not be in the Belmont Stakes, the third leg of the Triple Crown. Instead, he will be pointed toward the Travers at Saratoga, and then beyond. To repeat: Derby winner in the Belmont: Probably. Preakness winner: Definitely not.
Perhaps this all sounds familiar.
Tim Layden is writer-at-large for NBC Sports. He was previously a senior writer at Sports Illustrated for 25 years.