By Dawn LeFevre
It was the Preakness that the Derby winner skipped, that the heavy favorite had passed up the Derby to target, that the presumed pacesetter was scratched due to a dispute over seating arrangements, that the legendary Bill Shoemaker lost to a sixteen year old kid, and that the owner of the winner had to strong-arm his trainer into entering.
It was also the first Preakness I attended. What I remember most about that day was that everyone from the professional handicappers to the infield partyers had one name on their lips – Linkage.
The 1982 Triple Crown series was one of the most bizarre in the history of the sport. It started when Henry Clark, the trainer of Linkage decided to skip the Kentucky Derby and target the Preakness instead. Coming off of an impressive win in the Blue Grass Stakes and a record of eight wins and two seconds in ten starts, Linkage would have been one of the favorites in the Run for the Roses. However, Clark believed that the Blue Grass had taken too much out of his horse for him to recover in time for the Derby, a mere three weeks away.
And so Linkage rested while Gato Del Sol, who he had beaten by two lengths in the Blue Grass, shocked everyone by winning the Derby at 21-1. Now the Preakness had all the makings for a great rematch between the two Blue Grass combatants. There was only one catch – Gato Del Sol wasn’t running. The Derby winner’s connections did the unthinkable – they chose to skip the middle jewel of the Triple Crown to focus on the Belmont. It was the first time a Derby winner had failed to run in the Preakness since 1959. Their decision divided the racing community. Horsemen backed trainer Eddie Gregson’s decision to do what was in the horse’s best interest. However, the media and fans were upset that there would be no chance of a Triple Crown winner. Upset over how the absence of the Derby winner would affect track attendance, Pimlico General Manager Chick Lang berated Gato Del Sol’s connections in the press.
Somewhere lost in the hoopla was a dark bay colt named Aloma’s Ruler. With victories in the Nutley and Bahamas Stakes and a record of four wins and a second in five starts, he appeared to be a legitimate Derby contender until a wrenched ankle sidelined him for three months. Aloma’s Ruler returned to action on April 29th with a second in an allowance race and followed it up nine days later with a hard-fought Withers victory over Spanish Drums. Owner Nathan “Red” Scherr wanted to run Aloma’s Ruler in the Preakness but trainer John J. “Butch” Lenzini Jr. balked at racing the horse three times in seventeen days after a three month layoff. However, Scherr won in the end and Aloma’s Ruler was entered in the Preakness Stakes. Sixteen-year-old “Cowboy Jack” Kaenel, who had guided him to victory in the Withers was named as his rider, making him the youngest jockey ever to ride in the Preakness.
But to the crowd of 80,000 the race was all about Linkage. He had a Maryland-based trainer, he had specifically been pointed to this race and he was ridden by the living legend himself – Bill Shoemaker. He was a Sure Thing. The fans bet Linkage down to 0.50-1 with Derby runner-up Laser Light the second choice at 5.30-1 and Aloma’s Ruler at 6.90-1
But there was a last minute twist – Robert Perez, co-owner of Cupecoy’s Joy became irritated that his request for thirty reserved seats wasn’t acted upon quickly enough so he scratched the speedy filly.
The lead was now up for grabs.
Lenzini instructed Kaenel to send Aloma’s Ruler to the front and Cowboy Jack did just that – rocketing to the lead and securing a rail position. Meanwhile Bill Shoemaker restrained Linkage back into third going into the clubhouse turn. As Aloma’s Ruler skipped through a quarter in 0:23 4/5 and a half in 0:48 flat, Shoemaker angled Linkage to the outside. At the top of the stretch he asked the favorite for his run and the colt responded willingly. But there was one thing Shoe hadn’t counted on – Aloma’s Ruler’s grit. The colt dug in and stubbornly held off Linkage to win by a neck. The crowd was stunned. The fifty year old Shoemaker had just been beaten by a sixteen year old kid riding in his first Preakness.
Now the champion three year old picture was really muddied. Perhaps the Belmont Stakes would sort it out. So the connections of both Linkage and Aloma’s Ruler sent their horses to New York for a final show-down with Gato Del Sol.
It literally rained on everyone’s parade. Met Mile winner and Triple Crown newcomer Conquistador Cielo cruised to a fourteen length victory over a sloppy track with Gato Del Sol a well-beaten second, Linkage fourth and Aloma’s Ruler ninth. And so like Linkage, Gato Del Sol’s skip one Triple Crown race to target another strategy had failed to pay off. Although each of the 1982 Triple Crown races had been won by a different horse, it was Conquistador Cielo who would take home the Eclipse Award for Best Three Year Old.
As for Preakness hero Aloma’s Ruler, he followed up his off the board Belmont finish with a victory in the Jersey Derby, a third in the Suburban Handicap and second in the Haskell. After a game second to longshot Runaway Groom in the Travers, he was retired due to ankle problems. Aloma’s Ruler was a shy breeder and failed to pass on the tenacity that he’d exhibited in the Withers and Preakness to his offspring. He died from natural causes at age twenty-four on June 21, 2003.
Photo Credit: Preakness Twitter/ Cowboy Jack Kaenel wins the 1982 Preakness as the youngest jockey