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.