The morning after the Kentucky Derby, regardless of who wins or loses, it begins.
People start talking about the Preakness as if it were a race for skateboarders around hairpin turns. You hear about Pimlico's speed-favoring surface. You hear about Pimlico's tight turns.
But ask the track superintendents at Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby, and Pimlico Race Course, site of the Preakness two weeks later, and you discover this: The length of the stretches and the turns of the two tracks are virtually the same.
Peruse the charts of the past 50 Preaknesses, going back to Blue Man's victory in 1952 from 13 1/2 lengths off the pace, and you find this: Only 13, or 26 percent, were won by horses on the lead or within two lengths of the leader after the first half-mile of the 1 3/16-mile race.
At that half-mile mark, as the field emerges from the first turn and enters the backstretch, 19 winners sat more than two but less than five lengths off the pace. Such horses are called "stalkers."
Another 18 "closers" charged from more than five lengths behind. That means that 37 winners of the past 50 Preaknesses - 74 percent - rallied from off the pace, contradicting the widely held notion that the Preakness, the second leg of horse racing's Triple Crown, and Pimlico's so-called tight turns, favor early speed.
Ask Edgar Prado, Maryland's dominant jockey in the 1990s who will ride Harlan's Holiday in today's Preakness, whether the turns are tighter at Pimlico, and he says: "Oh yeah, definitely."
Listen to Steve Asmussen, trainer of Easyfromthegitgo in the Preakness. He says he has trained enough horses and run enough of them at Pimlico to know what the track is like.
"On a day-to-day basis, speed has an advantage at Pimlico," Asmussen says. "A horse has to be on or near the lead. Pimlico is a racetrack where you need good acceleration and where you rarely see horses make up 10 or 15 lengths."
John Ward Jr., trainer of last year's Derby winner Monarchos and this year's Preakness entrant Booklet, says that Booklet is a horse for whom Pimlico and the Preakness were made. Ward didn't run Booklet in the Derby, so he would have a fresh horse for the Preakness.
"The Pimlico course is a, quote, speed-favoring racetrack," Ward says. "It appears that races run here are won by horses close to or on the lead, especially in the Preakness. The turns are tighter, so you've got to tuck in on the fence."
This myth of the Preakness being a race for speedsters apparently originated in 1957 after Bold Ruler, a speed horse who later sired Secretariat, finished fourth in the Kentucky Derby. According to Chick Lang, Bold Ruler's jockey, Eddie Arcaro, said after the Derby that his horse would perform better "when we get to Pimlico with those tight turns."
Lang worked at Pimlico from 1959 to 1987, serving as general manager for 21 years and earning the nickname "Mr. Preakness." He became close friends with Arcaro, who captured six Preaknesses, more than any other jockey.
"Like with E.F. Hutton, when Eddie Arcaro spoke, everybody listened," Lang says. "And you know, people are still saying it. Once they get that set in their mind you're not going to change them."
Lang says that if Arcaro, who died in 1997, told him once he told him a dozen times: "Chick, get people to stop saying that. I never should have used the word 'tighter.' What I meant was 'narrower.' The turns at Pimlico are narrower than they are at Churchill Downs."
Lang isn't sure how Arcaro figured the narrower turns would help Bold Ruler (although they didn't hurt - he won as the pacesetter). But Arcaro was correct about Pimlico's narrower turns.
Actually, Churchill is wider in the stretch and turns. Its dirt track from inner rail to outer rail averages about 80 feet. The exception is the beginning of the first turn, which narrows to 66 feet.
Pimlico's backstretch is 68 feet wide, and the front stretch is 70 feet wide. The width narrows entering both turns, most drastically on the backstretch entering the far turn. The turns at both tracks are banked about 4 degrees.
"I think the public perception is that tighter means sharper," says Chris McCarron, the Hall of Fame jockey who started his career in Maryland and now rides in California; he will ride Crimson Hero in the Preakness. "I never thought Pimlico's turns were tighter than Churchill's.
"But there is a difference between the tracks, and it's a distinct difference - the width of the racetracks. Pimlico's turns are narrower, giving the illusion that the first turn is a lot sharper."
But that, McCarron says, doesn't affect how races unfold at Pimlico. If the turns were sharper, horses on or near the lead would have an advantage. Horses making their move from off the pace would have a harder time gaining ground around a sharp turn.
Jerry Bailey is a five-time Eclipse Award-winning jockey who won the Preakness with Hansel in 1991 and Red Bullet in 2000 and will ride Medaglia d'Oro today. He says that the turns at Pimlico are no different from turns at other mile tracks, but that Pimlico's surface does favor horses with speed who hug the rail.
Horses with speed, especially when not dueling with another speed horse, are always dangerous, and the inside is the shortest way around any track. Richard Small, a Maryland trainer who has stabled horses at Pimlico since 1971, says that the racing surface at Pimlico occasionally changes as other tracks' surfaces do, but that the horse is the key.
"If you have the best horse, and he's a speed horse, he'll win," Small says. "If you have the best horse, and he's a closer, he'll win. I think Pimlico's reputation as speed-favoring is overrated."
Pat Day, the Hall of Fame jockey who has won five Preaknesses, will ride Booklet today. Asked about the turns at Pimlico, he says:
"Yeah, the turns are a little bit sharper than they are at Churchill Downs, and Pimlico generally plays a little quicker. But I've won the Preakness on the lead, from the middle of the pack, from the back of the pack. You've just got to be on the best horse."
Day says the speed factor, whether relevant or not, enters discussions about Preakness strategy. After Forty Niner failed to catch front-running filly Winning Colors in the 1988 Derby, Day huddled before the Preakness with Forty Niner's owner Seth Hancock and trainer Woody Stephens.
"The feeling was that we had let her have her way in the Derby, and now we were moving to a, quote, speed-favoring racetrack," Day says. "We felt that if we were going to beat her, we'd have to go after her early."
Forty Niner and Winning Colors battled each other into submission, setting up the race for Risen Star to rally from fourth and win by 1 1/4 lengths. Winning Colors finished third, Forty Niner seventh.
Trainers Bob Baffert and D. Wayne Lukas, who have won eight Preaknesses between them, have never won with a front-runner.
"Everybody thinks the Preakness is a speed deal. But it's totally false," Baffert says. "And this year everybody's probably going to go, and they'll collapse and set it up for a closer."
That could happen. War Emblem, whom Baffert trains, won the Derby after galloping along on an uncontested lead. Opposing trainers say that won't happen today; their horses will challenge War Emblem early - and, as Baffert says, that might set up the race for a late-running horse to overtake the tiring speed horses.
Gary West, astute racing analyst and turf writer for the Dallas Morning News, scoffs at this notion of the Preakness favoring early speed.
"Because of this specious reputation of Pimlico as a speed-favoring track and the Preakness as a speed-favoring race, the Preakness itself often is just the opposite," West says. "You get a lot of horses who are basically speedsters. So what happens is, the pace gets so hot that the leaders often crash and burn, and the stretch runners become effective. And so the reputation works to contradict itself."
Speed isn't everything
As the following list shows, speed horses (those leading or within two lengths of the lead after a half-mile) have won only 13 (or 26 percent) of the past 50 Preaknesses. Stalkers (two to five lengths behind the leader) and closers (more than five lengths behind) have won 37 (or 74 percent).
Speed horse (13)
Within two lengths of leader after a half-mile.
1997 Silver Charm (3rd) 1 1/2 lengths behind. Won by a head.
1996 Louis Quatorze (1st) Led by 2 lengths. Won by 3 1/4 lengths.
1991 Hansel (3rd) 1 1/2 lengths behind. Won by 7 lengths.
1988 Risen Star (3rd) 1 1/2 lengths behind. Won by 1 1/4 lengths.
1982 Aloma's Ruler (1st) Led by 1 length. Won by a half-length.
1978 Affirmed (1st) Led by 1 length. Won by a neck.
1977 Seattle Slew (1st) Led by a head. Won by 1 1/2 lengths.
1973 Secretariat (1st) Led by a half-length. Won by 2 1/2 lengths.
1972 Bee Bee Bee (1st) Led by 1 1/2 lengths. Won by 1 1/2 lengths.
1964 Northern Dancer (2nd) Half-length behind. Won by 2 1/4 lengths.
1960 Bally Ache (1st) Led by 3 lengths. Won by 4 lengths.
1957 Bold Ruler (1st) Led by a head. Won by 2 lengths.
1954 Hasty Road (1st) Led by 1 1/2 lengths. Won by a neck.
From two to five lengths behind leader after a half-mile.
1995 Timber Country (6th) 4 1/2 lengths behind. Won by a half-length.
1994 Tabasco Cat (4th) 3 lengths behind. Won by three-quarters of a length.
1990 Summer Squall (4th) 5 lengths behind. Won by 2 1/4 lengths.
1989 Sunday Silence (3rd) 3 lengths behind. Won by a nose.
1986 Snow Chief (2nd) 4 lengths behind. Won by 4 lengths.
1983 Deputed Testamony (5th) 4 1/4 lengths behind. Won by 2 3/4 lengths.
1980 Codex (3rd) 2 lengths behind. Won by 4 3/4 lengths.
1979 Spectacular Bid (4th) 5 lengths behind. Won by 5 1/2 lengths.
1975 Master Derby (4th) 2 lengths behind. Won by 1 length.
1971 Canonero II (2nd) 2 1/2 lengths behind. Won by 1 1/2 lengths.
1970 Personality (6th) 5 lengths behind. Won by a neck.
1969 Majestic Prince (3rd) 4 1/4 lengths behind. Won by a head.
1968 Forward Pass (4th) 4 lengths behind. Won by 6 lengths.
1966 Kauai King (2nd) 3 lengths behind. Won by 1 3/4 lengths.
1963 Candy Spots (3rd) 3 lengths behind. Won by 3 1/2 lengths.
1962 Greek Money (5th) 2 1/4 lengths behind. Won by a nose.
1956 Fabius (3rd) 4 1/2 lengths behind. Won by 1 3/4 lengths.
1955 Nashua (4th) 2 1/2 lengths behind. Won by 1 length.
1953 Native Dancer (3rd) 2 1/2 lengths behind. Won by a neck.
More than five lengths behind the leader after a half-mile.
2001 Point Given (6th) 7 1/2 lengths behind. Won by 2 1/4 lengths.
2000 Red Bullet (7th) 7 lengths behind. Won by 3 3/4 lengths.
1999 Charismatic (10th) 7 3/4 lengths behind. Won by 1 1/2 lengths.
1998 Real Quiet (6th) 9 lengths behind. Won by 2 1/4 lengths.
1993 Prairie Bayou (9th) 7 1/4 lengths behind. Won by a half-length.
1992 Pine Bluff (6th) 7 1/2 lengths behind. Won by three-quarters of a length
1987 Alysheba (5th) 6 1/2 lengths behind. Won by a half-length.
1985 Tank's Prospect (7th) 8 1/2 lengths behind. Won by a head.
1984 Gate Dancer (6th) 5 1/4 lengths behind. Won by 1 1/2 lengths.
1981 Pleasant Colony (7th) 7 1/4 lengths behind. Won by 1 length.
1976 Elocutionist (4th) 8 1/2 lengths behind. Won by 3 1/2 lengths.
1974 Little Current (12th) 10 1/2 lengths behind. Won by 7 lengths.
1967 Damascus (8th) 11 3/4 lengths behind. Won by 2 1/4 lengths.
1965 Tom Rolfe (5th) 9 lengths behind. Won by a neck.
1961 Carry Back (9th) 14 1/2 lengths behind. Won by three-quarters of a length
1959 Royal Orbit (8th) 9 lengths behind. Won by 4 lengths.
1958 Tim Tam (7th) 10 lengths behind. Won by 1 1/2 lengths.
1952 Blue Man (10th) 13 1/2 lengths behind. Won by 3 1/2 lengths.