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A new crop of feel-good tales comes every spring in horse racing. But to most folks around Pimlico, nothing touches the memories of 1983.
That was the year the Preakness was won by Deputed Testamony, a long-shot colt bred in Maryland for what in racing terms amounts to tip money. And saddled by Bill Boniface, a trainer unheralded on the national scene but beloved in his native Baltimore. And ridden by Donnie Miller, an inexperienced teenage jock reared on Maryland tracks.
Herb McCauley will be reflecting on that particular race when he watches this weekend’s 127th running of the Preakness. He does every year at this time. His recollections don’t leave him giddy, however.
“It’s always tough, thinking back,” he says. “Some people have ‘The Christmas That Never Was,’” McCauley says. “I have ‘The Preakness That Should Have Been.’”
McCauley still believes he should have been holding Deputed Testamony’s reins that day. In 1983, he was the top rider in Boniface’s stable, and he was the horse’s regular jock up to the big race. Just a week before the Preakness, McCauley rode Deputed Testamony into the winner’s circle in a lesser stakes race at Keystone, a Philadelphia-area track.
“He was so sharp in Philly,” McCauley says. “I just sat on him the whole race. Maybe I dropped my hands for 20 yards to see just how much horse I had under me. I had a ton of horse.”
The consensus among railbirds was that the horse wasn’t Triple Crown series material. Boniface was a known quantity in racing at the national level, but only because his father, William Boniface Sr., was for decades the lead turf writer at the racing-conscious Baltimore Sun. He’d inherited the racing bug from his dad, but the writing gene had skipped his generation. So after a stint in the Marines, the younger Boniface entered racing on the business level. He founded Bonita Farm, a full-service racing operation that he ran with his wife and five of their children on just 40 acres in Bel Air.
Deputed Testamony, which Boniface co-owned with friend F.P. Sears, had been conceived on the family farm. In terms of breeding, the horse’s racing credentials were far less impressive than Boniface’s.
“Deputed Testamony was sired by a stallion that had a stud fee of just $500, and out of a mare that you could have bought for $500,” Boniface recalls. “That’s the breeding of a horse destined to run at the small tracks for small purses, the ‘bull rings,’ not the Triple Crown races or the Preakness. The odds of this horse ever making something of himself in racing is several thousand to one. But, sometimes, if you give a horse a chance…”
In 1983, Boniface had trained a horse that he deemed worthy of a start in the Kentucky Derby, but it wasn’t Deputed Testamony. It was Parfaitement, whose owners, the Laney family, were major clients of Bonita Farm. So while Deputed Testamony cooled his hooves back in Bel Air and prepped for a ride at Keystone, McCauley rode Parfaitement to a dismal 16th-place finish at Churchill Downs.
But the strength of Deputed Testamony’s run in Philly convinced Boniface to give his own horse a try against the best 3-year-olds on the planet when they came to Pimlico for the second leg of the Triple Crown. McCauley says he figured Parfaitement would sit out the Preakness because of the shabby Derby showing. But even if Parfaitement did make a start, the jockey says, he went into race week assuming he’d be aboard Deputed Testamony when the gates opened.
As the chart of the 1983 Preakness proves, things worked out differently. But exactly why McCauley wasn’t in the winner’s saddle is open to debate. Boniface, who has turned over the training portion of Bonita Farm to his sons, recalls that he allowed McCauley to pick between the stable’s two Preakness entries.
“I think Herb was thinking back to the last prep race he had with Parfaitement before the Derby, the Wood Memorial, where he just got beat a nose,” says Boniface, now 60. “So he chose Parfaitement over Deputed Testamony. My experience tells me that when you let a jockey make the choice, he chooses wrong, but I let it stand.”
In racing circles, Boniface’s version is the story of record: McCauley made the decision, leaving Donnie Miller, a Laurel kid only 19 years old, to come out of the gate aboard Deputed Testamony. But McCauley, now 45 and living in Rumsen, N.J., tells a different tale.
“After [the Keystone win], I felt he was the best 3-year-old in the country,” he says. “Before the [Preakness], I went to Mr. Boniface’s house for dinner, and we were talking about which horse I would ride, and I knew which one I wanted to ride—that was Deputed Testamony. But during dinner, the phone rang, and Bill left the room to answer it, and when he came back he said the Laneys had decided they wanted Parfaitement in the Preakness, and he said, ‘You’re riding him.’ People always say I had a choice. I never had a choice. It was Bill’s request.”
Whatever desire McCauley had to be aboard Boniface’s other entry surely peaked heading into the far turn of the 108th Preakness, run in the mud after a mid-May deluge. That’s when Miller and Deputed Testamony, who had been running in the middle of the 13-horse pack, began their closing move along the rail. Before blowing past 11-10 Preakness favorite and Derby winner Sunny’s Halo, Deputed Testamony found his path to the front blocked by none other than a fading Parfaitement.
“I remember Donnie hollering at me for room,” McCauley says. “He didn’t have wings to fly over me, so if we weren’t an entry, he’d have been up my ass or over the fence if he tried to get by me. But I knew I didn’t have any horse left, and he had a whole lot, so as an entry mate, I let him through, and he was able to cut the corner heading out of the turn and really open up. I just watched Deputed Testamony run toward the wire, knowing that a win in a Triple Crown race was within my grips. That wasn’t fun.”
Boniface recalls feeling utterly exhilarated as he watched Deputed Testamony head for home to the cheers of the hometown crowd. That exhilaration, he says, went uninterrupted until he encountered McCauley in the paddock.
“Herb had tears in his eyes as he unsaddled,” Boniface says. “That was tough for him then.”
And it still is. McCauley went on to notch 3,000 wins in his career but never got a victory in a Triple Crown race. He was forced to give up riding in 1998, after a serious spill at Monmouth Park nearly severed his left leg. He admits that he’s spent much of his retirement dwelling on things that turned out differently than he’d wished.
“People say, ‘Put it behind you! Put it behind you!’” he says. “But it’s not that easy, especially when you’re reminded of what happened every year, year after year. The Preakness was broadcast on ABC back then, and I remember after the race all I kept thinking was about that slogan from Wide World of Sports: This is the ‘agony of defeat!’ I know what they’re talking about.”
No Maryland horse has won the Preakness since 1983. Now 22 years old, Deputed Testamony still does occasional stud work, for just $2,000 a pop, at Bonita Farm. Boniface sees the horse every day. Miller, also retired from racing, comes by the farm occasionally to check on his most famous mount. McCauley and the trainer no longer stay in touch. —Dave McKenna