Sometimes it pays to be tongue-tied. Just ask El Bakan, a 51-1 shot, who finished a surprising third in the 118th Preakness yesterday at Pimlico Race Course.
Labeled the "Panamanian wonder" after winning seven straight races in that country, El Bakan was called "El Floppo" after finishing 18th, 27 lengths behind winning Sea Hero, in the Kentucky Derby two weeks ago.
But owner Robert Perez and veteran trainer Alfredo Callejas, who first joined forces in Argentina 30 years ago, knew this was not the real El Bakan.
"He almost swallowed his tongue halfway through the Derby and couldn't breathe," Callejas said. "[Jockey] Craig Perret had the good sense to pull him up and not cause a serious problem."
Added Perez: "We also drew a horrible post position [19th] in the Derby. It was like trying to steer a cab through New York traffic. Our horse never really had a chance."
But the simple addition of a tongue-tie and an injection of Lasix solved El Bakan's Derby problems, and with a heady ride by Perret, the Kentucky-bred passed second-choice Personal Hope in the stretch to pay $14.60 for a show bet.
"My horse ran a big race today," Perret said. "You had to wonder after the Derby when he made a lot of noise breathing and bled a little. So now, with Lasix, we can see what kind of horse he is.
"I was sitting off Gary Stevens [on Personal Hope]," Perret said. "I wanted to make it look like I was going for the lead to discourage the outside horses. But it turned into a duel with Personal Hope. We hooked in at the quarter pole and dug in and fought. He fired big and proved he belongs with the top 3-year-olds."
For Perez, El Bakan's strong showing capped a highly productiveafternoon at Pimlico. His horse, Senor Speedy, won the $150,000 Budweiser Breeders' Cup Handicap in the eighth race on the card.
"What a day!" said Perez, a building contractor who left Buenos Aires for the United States in 1959. Four years later, he started importing horses from Argentina for his farm in Otisville, N.Y., an hour from New York City.
Perez purchased El Bakan from a group of Panamanians several months ago for an undisclosed price, but the lack of top-flight opposition in Panama made people skeptical of his record.
"There is a world of difference between how we prepare horses in Panama and the States," said Callejas. "They just don't have as much speed in Panama. We would put El Bakan in the lead, and no one could catch him."
But a more serious test awaits El Bakan in the Belmont Stakes, the longest of the Triple Crown races.
"I have great faith in Callejas," Perez said. "He is very good in developing distance horses. We should not have trouble handling the extra distance in the Belmont. Besides, Belmont Park is like home for us.
"After today's race, Perret told me, 'This is a great horse. And he's ready for the big game.' And yes, I believe he is."
Only El Bakan didn't talk. He was still tongue-tied.