May 12 2009

Preakness memory: Magic Weisner

Most every year, there’s a local angle to the Preakness.  After all, in this faded era, the Preakness stands out as the middle jewel of the Triple Crown — and, to Maryland horsemen, our middle jewel.

The Derby, of course, will always be the Derby.  But to Marylanders, the Preakness is special in a different, perhaps more parochial way.  More than one local horseman, if pressed to name the race they really want, would point to the race named after a horse who’d been named, in turn, after a New Jersey farm.

So, most years, a horse with local connections competes.  This year, it’ll be Tone It Down, ridden by local star (and rider of Hard Spun) Mario Pino and trained by William Komlo.  He most recently finished third in the $75,000 Federico Tesio Stakes at Pimlico, which might not, on the surface, seem like the most promising way to be entering a Grade I contest.

On the other hand, maybe it’s more promising than it seems.  After all, it was just seven years ago, in 2002, that unheralded local longshot Magic Weisner, off a second place finish in the Tesio and dismissed at 45-1 odds, came within about six feet of stealing off with the money and the Woodlawn Vase.

Magic Weisner was as unlikely as any Preakness contender could be, a scion of a modest local family with modest hopes.  Nancy Alberts, his breeder, owner, trainer, and sometime exercise rider, had purchased his dam, Jazema, for all of one dollar — that is not a typo — because of her terrible knees.  After surgery and extensive care, Jazema ended up a useful racehorse, winning 14 races.

After retiring Jazema, Alberts decided to breed her — a decision even Alberts admitted in a 2002 story marked her as a “crazy fool.”  Modestly bred fillies with bad knees do not productive broodmares make.

Except, of course, when they do.  Her ’99 mating with local sire Ameri Valay produced a son who nearly died of an infection as a foal. Only the expertise — or Magic — of the veterinarian, Alan Wisner — or Weisner — saved the youngster.

Soon enough, Alberts — who in ’02 had a stable of just six horses — had determined that Magic Weisner could be “the horse of a lifetime.”  By April of his three year-old season, he’d validated her intuition, with wins in several local stakes.  After a second in the Tesio, folks at the Maryland Jockey Club encouraged Alberts to enter the horse on Preakness day — but in the $100,000 Sir Barton Stakes.

Having none of that, Alberts shot for the moon.

I rather vividly recall talking with fellow handicappers about the race.  War Emblem had blitzed the Derby field (topping a juicy four-figure exacta) and looked to be the star of the show.  Magic Weisner, meanwhile, rated an automatic toss.

As the field turned for home, War Emblem asserted himself, gaining a multi-length lead.  Proud Citizen, second in the Derby loomed a menacing presence but could not get by.

And then, on the far outside, another horse, coming along late like a freight train.  He finished three-quarters of a length behind, though he was closing with every step; he simply needed more racetrack.

Who was that?  A quick check of the programs, then a look of shock: Magic Weisner.

Magic Weisner went on to finish fourth in the Belmont, then win the Ohio Derby and finish second (again to War Emblem) in the Haskell.  While prepping for the Pennsylvania Derby, he contracted West Nile Virus.

He survived WNV, and after a lengthy rehab, returned to racing.  On the day of his return, punters crowded around the paddock to see the star, and he looked every bit the part: big, strong, and full of attitude.  “I’m back, and I”m back in charge,” he seemed to say.

Until the gates opened.  The nerve damage he’d suffered from the WNV left him largely unable to push off the way he needed to.  He didn’t race again.

In 2005, after she’d retired Magic Weisner, Alberts said, “I am still proud of him.  Even now, he knows he is special.”

That’s still true, because Magic Weisner, as much as any horse of recent vintage, showed that lightning strikes in unpredictable places and that passion and devotion and commitment can still, on occasion, trump wealth and pedigree.  And so, reliably, local connections will take their shot at the Preakness each year and hope to capture some of Weisner’s magic.

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  1. sue

    I was recently recalled Magic Weisner – I’m glad that you shared it. I was under the impression that West Nile is fatal in horses and given the fact he actually survived was remarkable.

  2. Teresa

    Do you know where he is now, Frank?

  3. admin

    Thanks for checking in, Sue — always nice to remember those sort of second-tier horses with good stories.

    I don’t know where he is, Teresa. A commenter over at the Blood-Horse suggested he’d heard that MW was a hunter-jumper, but I don’t have confirmation of that.

  4. John S.

    Nancy Alberts had Magic in her backyard and he was fat and happy when I visited. Too fat. Nancy sent him to some people who are fooling around with him and keeping him busy, last I heard. Probably my favorite preakness. I followed the career of Magic Weisner up close, so knew he could run. I sat behind Nancy at Pimlico when she watched the jockey screw up the Tesio. She was cursing him on the back side. Lou Rafetto tried like crazy to keep her out of the Preakness, worried this cranky crackpot of a woman — in reality, one of the best horsemen in Maryland — would embarass everybody. I visited that barn before the race. Magic had this thing he liked to do. “Watch this,” Nancy said and slipped a peppermint between his lips. Magic pulled the mint into his mouth, closed his eyes and just stood there. “Listen,” Nancy said, and you could hear the horse sucking on it. Magic Weisner was a horse that looked great on the track; even when he came back from West Nile virus, he walked into the paddock like the king was back in the house and ready to take out the trash. He looked absolutely stunned when the gate opened and the whole field left him, with his diseased, shrunken hind end, twenty lengths back. He fit right in that day with the Derby horses, alpha on the track as ever. I remember putting my bets in at the press box and with a minute to post thinking to myself, ‘What am I doing? I can’t leave him out.’ Needless to say, I cashed a few healthy exacta tickets after Magic launched his run at War Emblem. I love to go to review terminals and watch the replay when Dave Rodman cries out “Magic Weisner!” in a voice that borders on ecstasy announcing the local horse the track tried to keep out was suddenly moving fastest of all.

  5. Bob

    The Kentucky Derby, the last prep race for the Preakness.

  6. Dan Wyant

    This year’s Belmont and the success of Mine That Bird brought back fond memories of Magic Weisner, after these seven years. I’m happy to see that at 10 years, he is still enjoying life.

    I took off from work to watch his comeback effort from West Nile Virus. And bet on him, just to show moral support. I stayed around after the race to watch Nancy Alberts talk to the reporter from the Wash. Post. I hope she finds another successful racer. But this was a memorable time for her and for all of Magic Weisner’s fans.

  7. Richie

    This was a great post. I remember watching “Magic” flying in the stretch-with a little bit of luck he would have won the race. I worked at the track in Maryland many years ago for the late, great, (should be in the HOF) Dick Dutrow and loved Maryland racing. So sad to see what has happened. Rich

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