No other horse in the prospective field has the outstanding physical attributes of the Maryland-bred colt nicknamed Woody.
Not only does he have near-flawless conformation and the musculature of a finely tuned athlete, but there is a charismatic spark to his personality that stamps him as special.
Within a week of his birth, late on a cold February night in 1990, Dr. Mike Cavey, the veterinarian who delivered the foal for owner Adelaide Riggs, had a feeling that the Woodman colt out of the mare, Cyane's Slippers, might be exceptional.
"There was something that just jumped out at you and said, 'This is the horse. This is the one that might do it for us,' " Cavey recalled.
Like the happy miracle that gave lifelong horsemen Paul Mellon and Mack Miller a Kentucky Derby winner last Saturday, Woods of Windsor carries the Preakness hopes of another longtime devotee of the sport, 84-year-old Adelaide Riggs.
"The Derby? That race doesn't really interest her," said Cavey, Riggs' friend, adviser and part-ner in her extensive Howard County thoroughbred operation. "It's the Preakness that she wants to win."
Riggs agrees. A stroke last winter partially incapacitated her, but did nothing to diminish her indomitable spirit and turn of phrase. "God took something away from me this year," she said. "But look what he gave me."
Thanks to luck, some ingenious horse trading, the wherewithal to resist bids of up to $400,000 for Woody as a yearling from an agent representing an Arab sheik, and two wins by the horse in $100,000 races within the last few months, it looks like Riggs is going to have her first Preakness starter.
"I can't believe it's happening," she said.
On a recent afternoon, Cavey flipped through a packet of old pictures and came across a photo of Woods of Windsor, taken when the horse was a couple of months old.
The little colt is wearing a baseball cap and is hamming it up for the camera. "He was so intelligent and became the farm pet," Cavey said. "That's what makes this so special. Almost since the day he was born he has been Mrs. Riggs' favorite horse. She'd come to the barn and say 'How is my Woody?' "
Not many people get a taste of the Triple Crown. But Woody gives jockey Rick Wilson and trainer Ben Perkins Jr. a rare second chance to try to win a classic race after last Saturday's 16th-place finish in the Kentucky Derby with Storm Tower.
That horse, owned by Charles Hesse of Oceanport, N.J., and Rita Tornetta of Blue Bell, Pa., is turned out at Riggs' Happy Retreat Farm in Woodbine, recovering from his Derby ordeal. Wilson said the horse was "flat-out exhausted."
Woody has taken his place in the Preakness, two weeks after winning the Federico Tesio Stakes at Pimlico Race Course. There hasn't been a Maryland-bred winner of the race since Deputed Testamony slipped through along the rail and won over a sloppy track 10 years ago.
"For Woody, it's a big step up in class," Perkins said. "Physically, he shows he belongs. But whether or not he will become unsettled in the paddock and starting gate remains to be seen. He is still immature about some things, although he's getting better all the time. He has a tendency to play around and to loaf in his races. But he won't be able to loaf in the Preakness. If he concentrates, and runs the whole race, then he'll have a shot. He certainly deserves the chance to show what he can do."
Perkins and Wilson were pleased with the professional way the colt handled himself in his last major Preakness workout at Pimlico yesterday, running six furlongs in 1 minute, 12 3/5 seconds in an even, focused manner. "He was a big, ornery colt, but now seems to be maturing," Wilson said.
The events that led to the conception of Woods of Windsor can be traced to a purchase Riggs made at Pimlico about 15 years ago.
"She needed a broodmare, and I fell in love with a particular filly named Hot Slippers," Cavey said. "She had placed in stakes [winning more than $90,000] despite a number of hardships. She was from one of the first crops of foals sired by Rollicking [a leading Maryland stallion of the 1980s]. We decided to buy her, but I figured the man who owned her would jack up the price if he knew Mrs. Riggs was interested."
Dressed as farmers, and arriving in an old beat-up truck, Cavey said he and Riggs handed the man $30,000 in $20 bills. "He had wanted $50,000, but when he saw that much cash spread out in front of him, he snapped it up pretty quick," Cavey said.
It took quite a bit of perseverance to put up with Hot Slippers. After delivering two sets of dead twins, she produced a live foal, a filly named Cyane's Slippers, in 1983. But Hot Slippers had such a penchant for kicking Cavey, that Riggs ordered him to sell her. The horse was sold, but eventually, after producing only one other foal, named Double Slippers, she was given back to Riggs. Both of her daughters are in the Happy Retreat broodmare band.
Cyane's Slippers failed to win a race. But when mated to Woodman, the sire of 1991 Preakness winner, Hansel, she produced two excellent foals. Riggs sold the first one, Wooden Slippers, for $200,000 as a yearling. The second one, Woods of Windsor, also was offered for sale at the Keeneland (Ky.) select yearling sale in the summer of 1991.
"He was scoped [by endoscopic examination] and X-rayed by 13 veterinarians and none of them could find anything wrong with him," Cavey said. "Cecil Seamans, who measures horse's configurations for some of the world's leading buyers, gave him a 98 score out of a possible 100 on conformation."
When the bidding at the auction reached $400,000, Cavey didn't think the price was high enough and bought back Woods of Windsor for Riggs' account at $405,000.
"I paced around for a long time and called her from the sale grounds on a portable phone," he said. "How was I going to tell her I didn't sell her horse for $400,000? I said, 'You might fire me, Mrs. Riggs, but I just couldn't let him go at that price.' "
Cavey recalled there was about 30 seconds of silence.
"Wonderful," Adelaide Riggs said. "I didn't want to sell him anyway."
What: 118th Preakness Stakes, second leg of horse racing's Triple Crown
Where: Pimlico Race Course
When: Saturday, May 15, post time 5:32 p.m.
Horses: 3-year-old thoroughbreds, all carrying 126 pounds
Distance: 1 3/16th miles
Prospective field: Nine horses, including Kentucky Derby winner Sea Hero, are expected. The others are Prairie Bayou, Wild Gale, Personal Hope, Union City, El Bakan, Woods of Windsor, Cherokee Run, Koluctoo Jimmy Al. Trainers of Rockamundo and P. J. Higgins also are considering running their horses in the race. One or two others may be entered.
Entry and post position draw: Thursday, 10 a.m., Pimlico Sports Palace
TV: ESPN, 3:30-4:30 p.m.; Chs. 13, 7, 4:30-6 p.m.
' 1992 winner: Pine Bluff