BALTIMORE -- After being named the champion of his generation as a 2-year-old, Lookin At Lucky earned another distinction this season: He was the unluckiest 3-year-old in America. He encountered misfortune in all three of his starts.
In contrast to the Kentucky Derby, Saturday's Preakness Stakes produced some satisfying clarity. The best horse won, and Looking At Lucky re-established himself as the leader of his generation.
He is not overwhelmingly superior to the rest of the 3-year-old crop for he had to work hard to score a three-quarter-length victory over long shot First Dude, who also ran a commendable race. But he left no doubt that he is a better horse than the Derby winner, Super Saver, who benefited from a perfect trip at Churchill Downs but finished a badly beaten eighth at Pimlico.
Lookin At Lucky's travails in his recent races had prompted trainer Bob Baffert to replace jockey Garrett Gomez -- indisputably one of the best riders in America -- with Martin Garcia, a 25-year-old whose experience and accomplishments were not close to Gomez's.
It was a bold decision that prompted much pre-race discussion and will
probably be cited as a key factor in Lookin At Lucky's victory. In fact, the change probably didn't make a difference. Garcia's' ride was not a tactical masterpiece like Calvin Borel's Derby ride on Super Saver. He simply stayed out of trouble by sitting outside his rivals and let his mount do the rest.
Even Baffert conceded that Gomez had been a victim of circumstances in his recent rides on Lookin At Lucky. He was saving ground behind the leaders in the Santa Anita Derby -- in what appeared to be an ideal striking position -- when he was stopped cold. In the Derby, he was probably doomed when Lookin At Lucky drew post position No. 1 in the field of 20. "I was sick when he got the one post," Baffert said. "I wanted to scratch him." Trapped on the inside, Lookin At Lucky was bumped hard twice in the early running and never got into contention.
The trouble appeared to be a legitimate excuse, but everybody connected with the colt knows that alibis are a cheap commodity in racing. "Somewhere along the line," said Paul Weitman, one of the colt's three owners, "you can't keep using excuses. You have to win."
Baffert gave only one pre-race instruction to Garcia, telling him to try to save ground on the first turn after he broke from post No. 8. After that point, Garcia was on his own.
As Garcia angled toward the inside -- he never got to the rail -- Lookin At Lucky was getting a break as the early stages of the race unfolded. The Preakness field appeared to have few horses with any early speed, except for Super Saver, and the possibility existed that Borel could take the early lead and seize a significant tactical advantage. Super Saver broke sharply, but as Borel considered his options, Ramon Dominguez seized the initiative by sending the 23-to-1 shot First Dude to the lead. He ran the first quarter-mile in a fast 22.91 seconds, a quick pace that would benefit the chances of a late runner like Lookin At Lucky. Borel was content to sit just outside the leader. "We had a perfect trip," he said.
As the field raced down the backstretch, Garcia angled to the outside for clear running room. The last thing he wanted to do, presumably, was to get pinned down on the rail and suffer the kind of fate that had befallen Gomez. As Caracortado moved up three-wide to challenge the leaders, Garcia had to make his move four-wide -- usually not the optimal trip on the turn at Pimlico. But the horse was in gear, with clear sailing. When Baffert saw the move, he exclaimed, "Oh, boy, he's running today!"
The Kentucky Derby winner was the first of the leaders to surrender. "He just came up empty today," Borel said. But First Dude, who had won nothing more than a maiden event in his six-race career, was not giving up. In mid-stretch, Lookin At Lucky appeared ready to take command, but First Dude kept fighting until he succumbed in the final yards.
The fact that First Dude finished so close to the winner, and that Jackson Bend (0 for 4 as a 3-year-old) was a close third , might be an indictment of the quality of the Preakness field and the entire 3-year-old generation. But Lookin At Lucky still commands respect because of his overall accomplishments. This was his seventh victory in 10 career starts, with six of the wins in Grade I or Grade II stakes company. If he had had a little more luck -- or at least an absence of bad luck -- there is no way to know how good his record might be.