For Water Cannon, the difference between victory and abject defeat came down to little pieces of plastic.
The Maryland gelding lost race after race after race — six straight to start his career — before trainer Linda Albert noticed her horse slowed whenever another came alongside.
Albert placed a three-quarters cup blinker on each eye to limit Water Cannon’s peripheral vision, and that transformed him from a distracted loser into a focused winner.
Now, Water Cannon enters the 129th Preakness Stakes on Saturday on quite a roll: He has won five straight races since he began wearing the blinkers.
“Once he got those on, he’s always [focused], so whatever the rider wants he can do it,” Albert said. “He’s gotten so much more focused I’m not worried anymore. Most good horses overcome whatever little fears they have or they’re not that good.”
Water Cannon earned his shot at the Preakness on April 17 by winning the Federico Tesio Stakes, a race that is often a Triple Crown prep for Maryland horses.
A local horse hasn’t won the Preakness since Deputed Testamony pulled an upset in the slop in 1983, but several have come close. Oliver’s Twist (1995) and Magic Weisner (2002) each finished second as a long shot, and Captain Bodgit (1997) finished third as the favorite.
Water Cannon is considered to have an outside chance of winning this year for an ownership of three local lawyers whose best previous runner was the 1999 multiple stakes-winner Perfect To A Tee. His brisk workout of 1:004/5 over five-eighths of a mile yesterday was the best of 19 over that distance at the Bowie Training Center.
“Deputed Testamony was no superstar, but he showed up that day,” Albert said. “My owners probably won’t ever get a horse at 3 [years old] ready to go, so why not take a chance? He has to run a little better than he has, but he’s been improving every race. A lot of local horses turn up their game for the race.
“Maybe racing after two weeks [in the Kentucky Derby] will knock out the other horses. I don’t know how special he is, but we’ll find out.”
The Nonsequitur Stable — named for the Latin term for “It does not follow” — to which Water Cannon belongs was formed in 1994 by four attorneys who also were ardent racing fans. David Dorsen, Ellen Fredel and Patrick Dooher, along with the late Al Ablondi, each contributed $10,000, thinking it would be a short-term fun experience.
Instead, their stable has grown to five horses and has a chance to win a Triple Crown race.
“It’s astonishing,” Dorsen said. “We thought it would last a year or two before running out of money. It just struck us: Why not?”
Said Dooher: “If we had a business plan, it was not to lose all our money in the first year.”
Dorsen is a former federal prosecutor who served as assistant chief counsel for the Senate Watergate committee and later represented Gen. William Westmoreland in a libel case. Dooher is a renowned tax attorney. Fredel is the managing partner.
The three aren’t absentee owners, though. They are involved in training plans as well as sales purchases. They were even consulted on Water Cannon becoming a gelding.
“We consider ourselves a small-time professional group,” Dorsen said. “This is not amateur hour. We meet regularly. We work very hard.”
The victory of Funny Cide in last year’s Kentucky Derby and Preakness proved that small stables can produce winners in big races. That lets groups like Nonsequitur dream of taking the Preakness.
“It has become totally absorbing the last week or so,” Dorsen said. “If we do well, it’s against the best.”
Just don’t expect the stable to name any of its runners Imnotacrook or TrickyDick. Then again, Dorsen wouldn’t rule out his Watergate past creeping into racing.
“It was an incredible experience that I still think about,” Dorsen said. “I thought of [naming a horse for Watergate] a bit, but nothing has happened so far.”
Amazingly, Nonsequitur has another graded stakes runner in the race before the Preakness. Of The Glass is a former claimer whose three recent wins put him in the William Donald Schaefer Handicap.
“One graded stakes would be unimaginable,” Dooher said. “Two on the same day will be astonishing.”
Water Cannon is the latest stakes runner to emerge from Bowie. The rundown remnant of Bowie Race Course, which closed in 1985, is renowned for producing stakes winners from humble conditions.
Maryland Jockey Club president Frank De Francis called Bowie “outer Mongolia” shortly before his 1989 death.
“It feels like we’re in Mongolia,” Albert said. “It’s like they don’t love us over here. Maybe it makes us tougher.”
Albert has emerged as one of Maryland’s regular top 20 conditioners. She had 24 victories locally last year, tops among Maryland women trainers. She took 33 races overall, winning $550,000. Albert handles nearly 20 horses.
“I want to be the leading trainer, not the leading female trainer,” she said. “There’s a lot of good trainers here, and I’d like to be one of the top.”
Water Cannon’s Preakness finish largely will determine his future outings. A strong effort will send him to more lucrative out-of-town stakes. Otherwise, Water Cannon will concentrate on smaller local races.
“We may stay home and take out the little prizes here or go after some bigger stuff,” Albert said.
Notes — Funny Cide is the 2-1 morning-line favorite for Friday’s $500,000 Pimlico Special. Dynever is 5-2, Southern Image 3-1, Midway Road 5-1, Evening Attire 8-1, Bowman’s Band 12-1 and Ole Faunty 20-1.