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Preakness was once antidote to Derby Fever

The modern Triple Crown tilts heavily toward the Kentucky Derby, with its demand for 20 horses and its overstuffed hype aided and abetted by a compliant media. The idea that an owner would skip the first race with a top horse in favor of the second has become an absurdity on a par with those pigs who keep trying to fly.

The gathering at Pimlico on Saturday for the 142nd running of the Preakness will include a handful of 3-year-olds who did not run in the Derby, although none of them -- with the possible exception of the young and innocent Cloud Computing -- would have been taken seriously at Churchill Downs. Good horses no longer lie in wait for the Preakness.

They used to, as long ago as 1967, when Harold and Frances Genter's In Reality was rolling through his early-season races with stylish abandon for trainer Melvin "Sunshine" Calvert. He won the Hibiscus, the Fountain of Youth and the Florida Derby to put himself in the thick of the Kentucky Derby conversation.

But the Genters had other ideas for their homebred son of Intentionally. In the wake of In Reality's Florida campaign, Harold Genter told sports columnist Robert Markus, of his hometown Chicago Tribune, that his preference was to wait for the Preakness.

In fact, Genter had to jot down his sentiments on a note pad because, according to Markus, the owner had screamed his throat raw cheering for his colt in the Florida Derby. Pencil in hand, Genter expanded on his thinking.

"We do not have too many good ones," he wrote, "and we would like to make this one last."

What a concept.

In Reality did not run between the Florida Derby on April 1 and the Preakness on May 20 (a prep race at Pimlico failed to fill). He showed up on the big day but was second-best by 2 1/4 lengths to the favored Damascus, who atoned for his Kentucky Derby flop and went on to be Horse of the Year.

"If we'd been able to run in the race they called off on us, we might have been closer," Calvert told Sports Illustrated. "But who is to say we would have won this even if we had had three or four races to get ready for Damascus? The winner is a good horse."

Linkage was a good horse, at least according to The Washington Post's Andrew Beyer, who heaped considerable praise upon the colt after his win in the 1982 Blue Grass Stakes.

"From the point of view of speed handicappers, it was much faster than any 3-year-old in the United States ever has run," Beyer wrote.

So, Linkage passed on the Derby to wait for the Preakness, and his trainer, Henry Clark, caught all manner of flak.

Believe it or not, there were -- and perhaps still are -- racing people who hold the Preakness in higher esteem than the Kentucky Derby. Clark was one of them. His grandfather trained Dunboyne, the winner of the 1887 Preakness, and Clark was a fixture in Pimlico's Barn A.

And yet Clark did not skip the Derby solely because he was Preakness-obsessed.

"I'd have been delighted to go to the Derby this year," said Clark, who was 78 at the time. "But the horse has to take you, not the other way around."

Running in both the Derby and the Preakness would have meant five races in 49 days for Linkage. Do that today, and you're a PETA poster boy.

With Derby winner Gato Del Sol passing on Baltimore, Linkage was practically conceded the Preakness, and Bill Shoemaker rode him that way. As it happened, the speedy Aloma's Ruler discovered an untapped courage, and with the benefit of a first half in 48 seconds, he held off Linkage to win by half a length.

Frank Stronach owns the Preakness, or at least his company does. But even before Stronach bought a controlling interest in Pimlico and Laurel, the Preakness was the race that caught his eye.

In 1997, the Stronach colt Touch Gold emerged as a 3-year-old of consequence by winning the Lexington Stakes, a viable prep, but then stayed in the barn on Derby Day. Primed for the Preakness by Dave Hofmans, he stumbled at the start and tore a chunk out of a hoof and yet still finished a brave fourth. Three weeks later, he ended Silver Charm's Triple Crown dreams in the Belmont Stakes.

In the spring of 2000, Stronach's colt Red Bullet was unbeaten in three starts after winning the Gotham. In the subsequent Wood Memorial, he used too much of his early speed and was beaten easily by Fusaichi Pegasus, which prompted Stronach and his trainer, Joe Orseno, to skip the Derby and point for Baltimore. Fusaichi Pegasus went on to win in Kentucky, while Orseno licked his chops.

"I thought I'd be disappointed when they broke from the gate without us," Orseno told The New York Times. "I wasn't. I also knew we had a very talented horse and we weren't going to duck the winner."

At Pimlico, Red Bullet and Jerry Bailey got the jump on Fusaichi Pegasus around the final turn and led him on a merry chase to the wire to win by 3 3/4 lengths.

'"They did right by the horse," Bailey said at the time. "Not too many people would have done that."

When they do, they're worth remembering.