Rationalizers find field for dreaming


So there was Nick Zito by the Pimlico stakes barn shortly after sunup yesterday, explaining that his long shot could win the Preakness because of a fifth-place finish six months ago.

"You gotta understand how I figure this," he said.

He is the trainer of Agincourt, a bay colt who ran fifth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last November, two places ahead of Pine Bluff.

"See, Pine Bluff beat Lil E. Tee in the Arkansas Derby, and Lil E. Tee won the Kentucky Derby," Zito said, "so I figure my horse can run with Lil E. Tee, right?"

Welcome to the equal opportunity Preakness, or so say the whispers. Arazi is back in France. A.P. Indy isn't coming. Lil E. Tee is the slowest Derby winner in 18 years. Everyone else, and we're talking everyone, is here with a rationalization.

"It's a great year to take a shot," D. Wayne Lukas said, "if you think you have any shot at all."

Lukas is here with Dance Floor, who ran third in the Derby. But he also is bringing in a long shot, Big Sur. Why? Why not?

"He beat Lil E. Tee in March at Oaklawn Park," Lukas said. "He's got great talent. He's just an underachiever. But if he runs to his talent, he can win."

Beat Lil E. Tee in March? Why not? A fifth-place finish six months ago? Why not?

This is the year you can steal a Triple Crown race, or so say the whispers.

"It looks like a collection of workmanlike horses," Zito said. "That's the right word. Workmanlike."

And so everyone is here with a rationalization. After six years of single-digit fields, the starting gate at Pimlico will be full Saturday. Fourteen horses. The largest Preakness in 22 years.

"There is no monster horse scaring anyone off," Lukas said. "There isn't that overwhelming respect for Lil E. Tee. He will always be the Derby champion, but I don't think any of the other 13 feel they can't beat him."

Understand, horsemen are famous for being able to rationalize anything.

"My horse was probably going to win," goes the joke, "until he dropped dead on the turn."

Understand, also, that a mortal Derby winner always catches hell at the Preakness. Zito knows. He brought Strike the Gold here as the Derby winner last year.

"Brutal experience," he said. "I spent all week listening to everyone explain how my horse was going to get beat."

It is a Preakness staple, handling the Derby winner with sly disrespect. But not just out of jealousy. When Strike the Gold ran sixth last year, he became the seventh of the past 10 Derby winners to try the Preakness and lose.

Now comes Lil E. Tee with five wins in nine starts, solid numbers that don't awe, and you know what is coming.

"They will hear it all week, this and that reason why they're gonna get beat," Zito said of the Lil E. Tee constituency.

It does not take a super sleuth to determine that many are more impressed with Alydeed, the Canadian-bred winner of the Derby Trial , who did not run in the Derby.

"He's reason enough alone to toughen up the immigration laws," Lukas said. "The horse is fresh, fit and totally legitimate. He's going to cause a lot of trouble."

But as we learned from the cautionary tale of the equine Elvis, Arazi, beware of the horse whose legend grows with each race he doesn't run.

Anyway, it could be that the rationalizers are dead wrong about Lil E. Tee. The colt is big and strong and does have credentials. He has finished first or second in every start but one. He was impressive blowing past Arazi at Churchill Downs.

ZTC "But I don't think anyone thinks he's the kind of horse to intimidate," Zito said.

Of course, this is a trainer basing his rationalization on a fifth-place finish six months ago. But why not?

"See, the way it shapes up, all these horses have the same kind of talent and run the same kind of race," Lukas said. "They tend to come from off the pace. So you're looking at a big mess on the first turn, maybe seven horses all jammed up. Then maybe another seven."

A big splash of horses. All shapes and sizes. All trying to steal a Preakness that can be stolen, or so say the whispers.

"It's going to be a rough run race," Lukas said. "There'll probably be a lot of people moaning afterward. I'll probably be one of them."

Afterward, when all those rationalizations never look so smart. Except for one. But which one?

"This is going to be a handicapper's nightmare," Lukas said. "Trying to pick the top three in this race, good luck. This thing is wide, wide-open."

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