D. Wayne Lukas' grip on the Triple Crown gathered strength once again in Baltimore yesterday, when Timber Country's stalled career got back on track with a win in the 120th Preakness.The chestnut colt, called the "Big Red Train" by Thunder Gulch jockey Gary Stevens, swooped by his Kentucky Derby-winning stablemate at the sixteenth pole under jockey Pat Day, then held off a surprise late run on the rail by Maryland-bred champion Oliver's Twist.
The victory derailed Thunder Gulch's attempt to become the sport's 12th Triple Crown winner, but gave Lukas his fourth consecutive win in a Triple Crown race, equaling the mark of retired trainer Lucien Laurin. Lukas' roll began in Baltimore last year, when he won the Preakness with Tabasco Cat. He followed that with a win by the "Cat" in the Belmont Stakes and came out running this year with Thunder Gulch in the Derby.
Yesterday's surprise move by local jockey Alberto Delgado on the Billy Boniface-trained Oliver's Twist stirred many local fans.
Not since Boniface won with Deputed Testamony in 1983 has a Maryland-bred come so close to winning the Preakness.
"I saw that horse on the inside," said Day. "Once my horse [Timber Country] got in front, he loafed. He wasn't giving 110 percent. But we could have gone around two more times and he [Oliver's Twist] still wouldn't have beat me."
Timber Country won by a half-length, running the 1 3/16 miles in 1 minute, 54 2/5 seconds, a second off the stakes mark and the 11th fastest Preakness since it has been run at the current distance.
It was the fourth Preakness win for Lukas and Day.
Boniface thought his horse, sent off a 25-1 long shot compared with 9-5 favored Timber Country, ran a winning race.
"If he [Oliver's Twist] goes out a little earlier or gets out a little sooner, we're a winner," Boniface said.
Delgado saved ground the entire trip but was blocked in midstretch between tiring front-runners Star Standard and Talkin Man. When he forged his way between them, it was too late.
Day already had opened up a daylight advantage.
"He didn't see Timber Country," Boniface said about Oliver's Twist. "He saw the Derby winner [Thunder Gulch] next to him. The Derby winner was not going to get by him, no way. The horse that beat him was out of sight of his blinker."
But it didn't matter. This Preakness, like last year's, belonged to Lukas and Day.
Until yesterday, it had been a frustrating few months for the trainer-jockey pair. Timber Country won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last fall and was the country's best 2-year-old, but in four races this spring leading to the Preakness, he failed to live up to expectations.
The Breeders' Cup jinx had held up in the Kentucky Derby when Timber Country finished third, more than two lengths behind Thunder Gulch. No winner of the Juvenile in the 11-year history of the Breeders' Cup had come back as a 3-year-old and won a Triple Crown race . . . . until yesterday.
"I told Pat, 'Make things happen,' " Lukas said. "We can go through a period of adjustment, but it's time to fish or cut bait. This is the 2-year-old champion. We can't keep taking him over there and finishing third."
That's exactly what Day did. He tapped the horse with his whip in the post parade, warmed him up more than usual and then whacked the lethargic colt a couple of more times with his whip leaving the starting gate.
But the drama started before the actual break.
The lightly regarded Texas colt, Itron, the first to load in the gate, became fractious and flipped, throwing off jockey Ricky Frazier and delaying the start about 2 1/2 minutes. The horse was backed riderless out of the gate and examined by veterinarian David Zipf for injury before he was allowed to be reloaded and start.
After that incident, the race unfolded as predicted.
Mystery Storm, a Midwest invader, worked his way to the front under Craig Perret and was stalked by Chris McCarron on 29-1 long shot Star Standard. But unlike the Derby, in which filly Serena's Song set ultra-quick early fractions, the pair in front set a moderate pace, running the first half mile in 47 2/5 seconds and six furlongs in 1:10 4/5.
At that point, Talkin Man chased the top pair and raced in third, followed by Oliver's Twist, whom Delgado had maneuvered from the 10-post to the rail. Thunder Gulch was on his outside with Timber Country running behind him in sixth.
In the Derby, Day followed Tejano Run much of the race until the stretch. This time, he tracked Thunder Gulch.
Around the final turn, Talkin Man moved to the outside and was poised to take over at the top of the stretch. At the same time, Gary Stevens moved with Thunder Gulch to vie for the lead and Day rallied five horses wide on Timber Country.
At the eighth pole, five horses were abreast, spread across the track, all with a shot to win.
Once Mystery Storm dropped back, he was replaced by Star Standard, who held on gamely until Oliver's Twist worked his way between him and Talkin Man. Fanned further out were Thunder Gulch and Timber Country.
Once Talkin Man retreated and Timber Country pulled away, Thunder Gulch became involved in his losing duel with Oliver's Twist.
Star Standard hung on for fourth.
"Once I got Timber Country outside of Thunder Gulch and he looked down the lane, then he got to running," Day said. "He changed leads fluidly and didn't have that head bob which he sometimes has. He broke his concentration a little bit [in late stretch] when he looked to the grandstand. But I got into him left-handed, and he straightened out and went on."
Stevens had no excuses for Thunder Gulch.
"I was in front all the time except when it counted," he said. "He broke fine, and it wasn't until late in the race that he gave way. I have all the confidence in the world in him still."
The real disappointment was Talkin Man, sent off second choice at 3-1 odds. For the second straight time, he fell apart in the stretch.
Like the Derby, he was in perfect position to go forward, but once again flattened out.
"I feel like he's having trouble the last eighth of a mile," said jockey Mike Smith. "Maybe if he gets more bottom under him, he can compete better. If we can get that last part of the race solved."
Later trainer Roger Attfield said Talkin Man had bled in the race and will now race on Lasix.
Tejano Run, who also failed to fire, and Pana Brass, who finished 10th, bled in the race. Tejano Run, the Derby runner-up, never got untracked and finished ninth.
Lukas said Timber Country and Thunder Gulch will start next in the Belmont Stakes on June 10.
"I have no doubts that each of them will get the 1 1/2 miles," Lukas said. "I'm excited about turning both of them loose in the Belmont."
Boniface said that Oliver's Twist, a son of Maryland's so-called "blue-collar" stallion, Horatius, will skip the Belmont and will start instead in the Ohio Derby on June 17.
Timber Country, who cost his owners, Bill Young, Bob Lewis and Graham Beck, $500,000 at the Keeneland (Ky.) Yearling Sales, earned $446,810 yesterday and increased his career total to $1,560,400.
Yesterday, he ran in Beck's Gainesway Farm colors.
Young said he is relieved Timber Country has regained winning form.
"He has tremendous stallion potential and this has increased his value greatly," Young said.
Yesterday's Preakness crowd count at Pimlico and three Maryland inter-track outlets at Laurel Park and Rosecroft and Delmarva raceways reached a record 100,818 fans.
A single-day wagering mark of $15,910,405 was set.