December 16, 2018

2018 Preakness storylines mirror those of a distant year

War Admiral had his sternest test of the Triple Crown series in the 1937 Preakness (Morgan Photo Service)

BALTIMORE — The Kentucky Derby winner, who tends to run on or near the pace and who many consider a viable threat to pull off the Triple Crown, will be an odds-on favorite to repeat in the Preakness while breaking from the exact same post position at Pimlico as he did at Churchill Downs.

His primary challenger, a stalk-and-pounce type, is last year’s champion juvenile and Derby runner-up, and is the only other horse likely to start at single-digit odds in the field of eight.

And did we mention the wet condition of the track being one of the major storylines leading up to the race?

We obviously could be talking about Justify’s quest to become a dual classic winner Saturday facing Good Magic. Strangely enough, turf writers 81 years ago looked at a Preakness with eerily similar parallels.

“The track at Pimlico was like a giant platter of bouillabaisse…soup as far as the eye could reach,” was how columnist John Lardner described the main track conditions on the eve of the 1937 Preakness, held that year on May 15.

The odds-on favorite in the Preakness was War Admiral, Man o’ War’s greatest son. The juvenile champion attempting to reverse the form of the Derby was Pompoon, who had 1 3/4 lengths to make up from the 1 1/4-mile race held just one week earlier.

Unlike what will probably occur this weekend, the Pimlico of ’37 dried up enough for the main track to be listed as “good” for the Preakness. Breaking from post 1 at odds of 35 cents to the dollar, War Admiral was sent to the lead by Charley Kurtsinger, held a steady lead of a length or slightly more to the stretch, then withstood a fierce challenge from Pompoon to win by a head, just keeping his Triple Crown hopes alive.

Existing film of the race suggests that, despite the narrow margin, War Admiral was not life and death to prevail. Aside from a right-handed tap or two from Kurtsinger around the sixteenth pole, War Admiral maintained his lead under what appeared to be vigorous hand urging while Pompoon was under a drive throughout.

There is little in common (yet) between Justify and War Admiral, and Good Magic presumably will have a more consistent career than Pompoon. Whether this Saturday’s race will be as close as that one so long ago remains to be seen, but history sometimes has strange ways of repeating itself.