Off the Pace: A quartet of memorable Preakness stretch runs

“With a quarter to go at Pimlico” is track announcer Dave Rodman’s signature stretch call.  As we approach the running of this year’s Preakness, I am reminded of four contentious battles that have occurred in the modern era within the final quarter-mile of Maryland’s greatest race.

The truth is, there have been many thrilling Preaknesses over the years. From Rachel Alexandra’s stirring win over Mine That Bird to the classic three-way battle among Silver Charm, Free House, and Captain Bodgit to Swiss Skydiver’s long battle with Authentic, the Preakness more often than not produces fantastic races.

How to pick one over the others? Well, it’s just too close to call, but here are my favorites.

You Can’t Hit a Lady (1980)

Genuine Risk entered the 1980 Preakness as only the second filly ever to win The Kentucky Derby. The story line of a girl against the boys led to huge national interest in the race.

Ridden by Jacinto Vasquez, Genuine Risk would go off as a slight 2-1 favorite in a race that consisted of four longshots and four low-priced horses. One of those other low priced horses was Codex ridden by Angel Cordero Jr. and trained by D. Wayne Lukas, sending out his first starter in a classic. Lukas has gone on to win six editions of the Preakness but has never been involved in as much controversy as he was in 1980.

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Codex stalked the leaders in third for much of the race with the filly a few lengths behind. Codex moved first and passed the leaders easily around the far turn. When Genuine Risk moved, she was positioned on the outside of Codex heading into the final quarter.

What happened next is still debated over 40 years later. This was the first Preakness I ever attended and I will never forget hearing the gasp from the large crowd as the two horses engaged. There is no dispute that Codex floated Genuine Risk wide leaving the turn. Some claim the two horses bumped. Others say Cordero’s whip struck Codex.

The filly appeared at the very least intimidated, and she did not pass Codex.  No inquiry was posted but an objection claim was disallowed by the stewards and, eventually, by the state Racing Commission.

[Video: 1980 Preakness]

Too Close to Call (2007)

The three best 3-year olds, Street Sense, Hard Spun and Curlin entered The Preakness after capturing, respectively, the first three spots in the Derby. 

In the second jewel, Mario Pino on Hard Spun chased a fast first quarter before unleashing a giant move on the backstretch to take the lead. The half went in 45.75 and three quarters in 1:09 4/5; Hard Spun was still courageously in front at the top of the stretch.

Street Sense with Calvin Borel aboard, eighth of nine early, closed strongly and passed Curlin and then Hard Spun to take the lead. Curlin did not quit and began to gain on the leader while being urged vigorously by Robby Albarado.

In what was to be my favorite Tom Durkin call of all time, the great announcer, sensing that Street Sense may not hold the lead, shouted “Street Sense in deep water.” Borel glanced over his shoulder, and under the wire Durkin exclaimed that it was “too close to call.” Albarado knew that Curlin had gotten up as he flashed his whip in victory. 

A tip of the cap to Dave Rodman who also called it correctly at the wire.

[Video: 2007 Preakness]

A Scrappy Performance (2005)

Afleet Alex exited the Kentucky Derby with a third-place performance. Like Epicenter, he had run the best race only to be beaten by a rough trip, a blistering pace and a fast-closing long shot — Giacomo in 2005.

Things wouldn’t get any easier in the Preakness for the son of Northern Afleet.

Local runner Scrappy T, trained by Robbie Bailes for Marshall Dowell, teamed up with then-local jockey Ramon Dominguez to turn in a huge – and almost disastrous — performance.

Turning for home, Scrappy T suddenly veered out sharply under a left-handed stick – directly in front of the Tim Ritchey-trained Afleet Alex and jockey Jeremy Rose. In so doing, he nearly knocked the charging Afleet Alex to the ground.

Proving that horses are athletes, Afleet Alex not only stayed up but he continued to close and won easily. As they say, “If you are handed lemons, make lemonade.”

[Video: 2005 Preakness]

The Sound of Silence (1989)

Not since Affirmed and Alydar had the game seen a rivalry like the one between Sunday Silence and Easy Goer. Of all their battles none was more epic than their stretch duel in the Preakness.

Easy Goer actually passed The Derby winner, Sunday Silence, twice in the race. The first time was when they were entering the far turn. Sunday Silence then kicked outside to take the lead and it seemed like he would pull away down the stretch.

Easy Goer did not quit and bravely got a nose ahead in the stretch. It appeared he may have tried to savage Sunday Silence when the two brushed repeatedly while pulling away from the rest.

The roar of the crowd was deafening as Sunday Silence came back to eek out a win by a nose and set himself up for a chance at the Triple Crown.

[Video: 1989 Preakness]