The 1986 Preakness Stakes
There were plenty of storylines going into the Preakness Stakes in the spring of 1986, the most prominent being Kentucky Derby champion Ferdinand attempting to move closer towards a potential Triple Crown at Belmont Park after his surprise victory at Churchill Downs two weeks earlier.
The other major plotline of the marquee race at Pimlico centered around the California-bred Snow Chief, who before the Run for the Roses had gone undefeated as a three-year old. He was the favorite to win in Louisville, but faded to eleventh after being in contention for much of the race.
Initially, it was uncertain as to whether the Florida and Santa Anita Derby champion would run in the Preakness. However, a development that changed everything soon followed. According to Snow Chief's trainer, Mel Stute, who recounted this in multiple interviews in the years following the Preakness, Charlie Whittingham advised him to run Snow Chief because he believed it was possible the colt just did not take to the main track at Churchill Downs. This was significant, for Whittingham conditioned Ferdinand, and thus was going for the Triple Crown.
The decision was made, and Snow Chief was sent to the Preakness in what became a rematch of the Kentucky Derby. Also returning to face the Southern California duo were Broad Brush, Badger Land, and Groovy, who had been the early pacesetter a fortnight earlier.
Ferdinand and his connections were out for the Triple Crown, while Snow Chief's team sought a rebound. Part of this saga was Bill Shoemaker, who delivered a masterful ride aboard Ferdinand to take his fourth Kentucky Derby and become the oldest jockey to win the event. Despite his thousands of victories and multiple riding titles and accolades, the Triple Crown had eluded Shoemaker during his career. Given his age of fifty-four, it was in all likelihood his last chance to take racing's most sought after prize.
Interestingly, neither horse was made the post time favorite for the Preakness. That status went to Badger Land, whose Kentucky Derby went all wrong. When the gates opened, Groovy took his normal position of pacesetter, while Snow Chief stayed close behind. Ferdinand occupied his customary place towards the back of the pack, and that was how the three horses ran for much of the race.
Groovy set a slower pace in the Preakness after establishing quick fractions in the Kentucky Derby, but he was simply more of a sprinter than a distance horse. Near the top of the stretch, Groovy was finished, and Snow Chief took the lead, just moments away from avenging his defeat fourteen days earlier. Ferdinand and Shoemaker were not giving up, making up ground on the inside to keep their Triple Crown bid intact. They moved up to second, making a valiant attempt to overtake Snow Chief, but the California bred was not going to make it two losses in a row. Snow Chief was a horse who gave his all, a blue collar sort who went to work on race day, and that was evident in the Preakness.
He conquered his six rivals to become the first state bred horse to win a Triple Crown race in more than twenty years, retaking his place as the leader of the three year old division.
Ferdinand came in second, the Triple Crown bid finished, but he was not disgraced in defeat. More wins would come for him later, including multiple Grade I triumphs and Eclipse Award honors. The Whittingham charge was indeed a racehorse.
Unfortunately for Badger Land, the Preakness was not the result that his connections hoped for, coming in fifth in what turned out to be his final race before being retired.
Snow Chief's Preakness win was symbolic of redemption. While the loss in the Kentucky Derby was not erased, it meant that some of the sting from the defeat was allieviated. After what had been a stellar summer, fall and winter during 1985 and 1986, the Preakness was the culmination of what had been a terrific career for Snow Chief after debuting less than a year earlier.
There was redemption also for Mel Stute, who had been questioned about whether he had raced Snow Chief too much leading up to the Kentucky Derby, as well as co-owners Carl Grinstead and Ben Rochelle. Grinstead had been involved in the game as an owner, trainer, and breeder for more than twenty years, and had reached the top of the sport, while Rochelle, a horseplayer who had become a part-owner a year earlier, found himself with a horse that had triumphed in one of racing's biggest contests.
The Preakness also played a major role in Snow Chief winning the 3 Year Old division honor at the Eclipse Awards, ensuring that he was part of not just Thoroughbred racing history in California, but the sport as a whole.