Pimlico Race Track, Baltimore--Even from the clubhouse roof, on a typical day at the races, you can't escape the sound of hooves as the horse come thundering around the final turn and light out for the home stretch. The horses come closer still, and you hear the slap of a half dozen riding crops stinging into horsehide as their jockeys try to find a little more horse.
But that's a typical day at the races, with a couple thousand fans tearing their tickets up at another finish robbing them of the ultimate pay day. In the world of horse racing, every day feels like the minor leagues until the big three, The Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes, bring the sport to center stage in the national sportlight.
Amidst a crowd of more than 98,000 fanatics, the sounds of the race are lost in the screaming and cheering of a non-stop day that features everything from rock concerts and keg parties to a parade of blue-bloods in high spring fashion drinking Black-Eyed Susans and turning their wagering attention to the second horse, knowing the worthlessness of a bet on the odds-on favorite, the superhorse of the new century, Fusaichi Pegasus.
The Derby may still be the sentimental favorite, but year after year, the Preakness proves to be the kingmaker of the Triple Crown. Nineteen of the nation's elite thoroughbreds were in the field at the Derby, and at the end of the day the other eighteen had yielded to the favorite, the next great horse, destined to take racing back into the high life with the first Triple Crown victory since Affirmed accomplished the feat 22 years ago.
For the past three years, the Preakness has set up even greater enthusiasm for the Belmont Stakes, producing a trio of Derby/Preakness winners including Silver Charm in '97, Real Quiet in '98, and Charismatic in '99. The only other three stretch of such consistency came from 1977-79 when Seattle Slew, Affirmed, and Spectacular Bid all started and finished the race with the mantle of racing's savior on their broad shoulders.
A day at the races
It's a rainy day in Baltimore this Preakness Saturday, but the refreshing cool drizzle doesn't faze the nearly 90,000 revelers staking out their turf in the infield. After the first of 12 races on the card, two hours into the party at 11 a.m., they're still walking straight in the infield. Hardly anyone's puked on the paved pathway, and there's at least an hour before a proper gentleman would go swinging for a fight.
But the gentleman of the horse world are not in the infield, The infield during the Preakness is like the world's biggest frat party, complete with coolers and kegs, an ever-present hint of weed on the wind, and a healthy dose of disrobing, drunken anti-debs, drinking in the attention that comes when dozens of beer-goggled urban rednecks catch sight of a raised halter top, a no-nonsense invitation to a coming out party certain to attract just the kind of gentleman callers the momentarily topless racing enthusiasts has long cast her dreams with.
What a beat for the cops! Word is only one arrest was made on race day, though plenty more were ejected from the course. It's one of those rare days where society's restrictions are set aside, and almost anything goes, as long as you're only hurting yourself. Though they're kept penned up in infield, safely fenced off from the clubhouse and grandstand, from the center of the sty, it feels like a day when the counter culture rules.
In a secure, guarded and gated corner of the infield, there's a party of another sort taking place. The Preakness Village has an exclusive roster of inhabitants, a $250,000 party thrown by the Governor of Maryland for the blue-blood elite who trace tradition back to the hundreds years history of horse racing and the ruling class.
The tent city is filled with hoighty-toighties dressed to the nines, moving from one lunch buffet of crab imperial to another, cigars in one hand and mixed drinks in the other. For an extra fee, they can mingle with renowned sports artist LeRoy Neiman as he signs prints of his race poster. Later Neiman takes a crane up to the weather vane atop the Cupola immediately following the Preakness Stakes to paint the colors of the winning horse's silks onto the horse astride the weather vane.
I pick up a contact buzz in the Preakness Village, catching the euphoric high that comes from an insulated existence beyond time and money, and where the beer-soaked rabble-rousers on the other side of the fence take on the distant quality of an urban legend, heard of but never witnessed.
The horse's mouth
Preferring the chance to look these horses in the mouth rather than linger longer with too many ambassadors from the other end of the animal, I follow the cedar chip path from the race track back to the Stakes Barn, where seven of the eight horses competing in the Preakness are waiting out the morning. A horse with an arrow emblem on his stable door is serenaded by the whistles of one of his trainers, Curly, who gently prepares him for the afternoon race. A bale of hay hangs at his stable door, and he eats calmly as he watches the occasional t.v. camera or the random owner trying to mask his last minute jitters. Later I learn that this horse is Red Bullet, but for now he is merely the most calm, easy going, and accessible horse in the barn.
Another horse is walking circles around the stables, trying to walk off the butterflies setting on a long day's wait. Impeachment, Red Bullet's neighbor, looks like he's hallucinating on bad acid, thrashing his head back and forth in the door of his stall as though he's slaloming through the bats swerving in front of him. Captain Steve tried to bite part of an owner's entourage, getting a little too close to the fidgety horse. Hal's Hope is antsy as well, waiting out the nine races that precede the Preakness stakes.
It's not as bad as its made out to be, here under the glare of the "media hype," but it's certainly more circus-like than a normal day at the track for these thoroughbreds. Unable to stomach the pressure, the notoriously jumpy Fusaichi Pegasus has been quartered at the far opposite end of the complex, isolated form other horses and inaccessible to the media save a distant glimpse the day before the race.
Fusaichi Pegasus is the horse who knew too much. His owner and trainer downplay his persnickety personality, emphasizing the horse's unusually keen powers of perception. He notices everything, they will tell you, and their desire to limit the distractions was simply a matter of accommodating his uncommon genius.
The world wants a Fusaichi Pegasus to be a winner this day, to revive the most elusive watermark in professional sports, the sweep of the Triple Crown. He is heralded as the biggest superhorse since Secretariat, but there are those, traditionalist perhaps, who are upset with the horse's prima donna approach to the event, his quirky training habits, his penchant for making his own rules and than blowing by anybody in the pack who doesn't want to play along.
By post time for the 10th race, a wet, sloppy track had been upgraded to "good."
Both Fusaichi Pegasus and Red Bullet started their run at the back of the pack, taking the club house turn from the rear and not moving to the front until the final turn. After the race winning jockey Jerry Bailey told reporters of his strategy.
"I wasn't sure how I was going to ride the race exactly until the break." Bailey recalled. "I knew I was going to be off the pace a little bit, but I didn't know if I was going to be in front of the favorite or behind the favorite, depending on how strong my horse wanted to run the first third of a mile.
"It had been by intention going into the race at some point, if I had enough horse, to try and get the jump on the favorite--whether I was in front of him and try and open up quickly going into the far turn, or whether I would run by him and open up in that style.
"My biggest concern was to get the jump on Fusaichi Pegasus. I was inside of him and I felt if we could beat him to the quarter pole, we could beat him to the wire."
"I was able to get up next to him and go ahead and take a spot in front of him on the inside. At that point, Fusaichi Pegasus took back and I assumed he was going around, which is kind of what I wanted to happen."
The key move came as the horses emerged from the final turn, with Bailey taking Red Bullet between Hugh Heffner and High Yield--the speed horses who had been setting the pace--and burst into the lead for good on the home stretch.
"Red Bullet really shoed what he was made of today," Bailey exclaimed. "He exploded on the turn, and as he was striding out he just left the other horse being. I'm surprised Fusaichi Pegasus didn't stay up with us at least until the middle of the stretch.
"The race set up nice for us," Bailey concluded. "We wanted to be mid-pack and that's exactly where we were able to get. I had to be back a little bit more than I thought I would on the turn, but I had better position on the turn than most of the others. And I was pretty sure we had it from there. It turned out great."
All of a sudden, Fusaichi Pegasus is no longer the next big horse. No matter what they say about you, if you can't win the Preakness, you are not in the class of horses of any era. All the shenanigans, the spoiled hijinx, the isolation, the hype came back to bite that horse in the ass.
The Derby makes 'em, the Preakness breaks 'em. It's a perfect race for cynics, and it plays out virtually every year. A Derby winner comes to Baltimore with the world ready to open its doors for him. The glory is sustained and elevated if he wins the Preakness, securing two legs of the Crown, but only 11 horses in 125 years, and only 3 in the last 52 years, have managed to leave Belmont with the most elusive prize in sports in tow. A year later, few remember the names of these champion horses reduced to also-ran status in a world yearning for the big bang. Their place in history moves to trivia questions and souvenir glasses.
It's all over but the whining
Though Bailey is considered one of the top jockeys in racing, Fusaichi Pegasus' Kent Desormeaux is coming up fast on his heels. Racing on the course where he first made his impact as a jockey, Desormeaux went home disappointed to come up short before a "home town" crowd.
"You hope to win the Triple Crown, and not getting past the second stage is disappointing," Desormeaux admitted after the race. "But that's what makes it the Triple Crown. It's tough."
"One thing's for sure, I develop a bigger and bigger respect for those that have won the Triple Crown, because you have to be a freak to do it. Fusaichi Pegasus is clearly a champion ,but he just couldn't pull it off today."
Both the jockey and the trainer put the blame on the track, and Desormeauux noted that "The track was a little greasy today. It might have made a difference. He's a big heavy horse. When the track gets greasy, he's so heavy going around those turns he's slipping and sliding. I think that certainly could have made the difference."
"But Red Bullet and I were right together all the way down the backside. We pushed the button at the same time, but Red Bullet had a bigger button. He just ran wild."
Trainer Neil Drysdale concurred with his jockey's assessment of the conditions, explaining that Fusaichi Pegasus " couldn't handle the track. That's the way I saw it, that's the way Kent say it....It was a greasy kind of track and he just couldn't go with it. He was squeezed a bit, but I don't think that hurt his chances at all. I think he just couldn't handle the track."
"He ran fine," Drysdale continued before resuming his chorus of justification. "Fusaichi Pegasus takes very long strides and was impacted by the track surface. He was courageous to finish second. I'm disappointed for the horse, that he came up with a track he couldn't handle."
It took Red Bullet trainer Joe Orsono to state the obvious, dismissing the sloppy track conspiracy, noting that "We all had to run it."
"The best part of this horse is that he has a great disposition," Orsono commented, subtly comparing his horse's high profile, easy access approach to the isolation employed in the Fusaichi Pegasus camp. "He had television cameras in front of him all week long and it didn't bother him a bit. He has a great personality; he has to deal with all this nonsense. But believe me, this horse had to race today. He was that ready."
The two horses had one previous showdown, in the Wood Memorial, the last big race before the Derby. Fusaichi Pegasus won that race by four lengths, but Bailey, due to conflicting commitments, couldn't ride Red Bullet, and the change in jockeys may have made a difference. Red Bullet ran too fast a race in Bailey's opinion, losing 16 pounds during the race and prompting his Orsono to pass up the Derby, giving him time to recuperate before making a run at the Preakness. With each horse having one head-to-head victory against each other, a rubber match at the Belmont Stakes in two weeks could offer up the ultimate bragging rights.
Back to the barn
I go back out to the Stakes Barn long after the race to see the horses. I'd seen more of Red Bullet in my pre-race trips to the barn than any of the other horses, but he isn't there on my first trip back. I watch Snuck In, the fifth place finisher, get washed down by a trainer. Steam rises off his body as the cool water hits his hot flesh, still cooling down after the race. His mane is in braids, to make him run faster, I suppose, and the trainer blows the water out of his eyes with some hard huffs and puffs from his own mouth. He washes him, rinses him, combs him. Snuck In's lips start to quiver and he lowers his head and neck, apparently bristling at the brushes and cool water. Somebody walks by pulling a rolling luggage bag, and Snuck In is ready to freak out. He keeps his wide eyes on the passerby, still fazed after running in front of 90,000 people.
Later still, I stop by the barn on my way to my car. Red Bullet is back, enjoying a last moment out in the grass at twilight before returning to his stall. A handful of admireres watch him settle in with another bale of hay. He is calm again, relaxed, content. You could never imagine he just made history in 1 3/16 miles just a second off the track norm at one minute and 56 seconds.
A teenager asks Smitty, one of his trainers, if he can give Red Bullet a carrot, and the Preakness winner gently nibbles on the carrot in the youth's outstretched hand. A few minutes later, I summon the courage to overcome my own respectful fear of horses and rub my hand along the champion's nose.
"That's what's special about the Preakness," an awed old-timer whispers to me from behind as the Red Bullet quietly gazes at me, no sign of aloofness with his new-found fame. Imagine Michael Jordan holding court after the NBA finals so his fans could rub his head for luck.
Yes, there is something special in this critical race, the vital middle leg in racing's Triple Crown. I imagine Fusaichi Pegasus, alone at the other side of the complex, snorting and bristling as his handlers console the runner up.
Red Bullet stands proud in his stall, the same graceful, confident horse he was when we visited earlier in the day. He is quiet as night falls and the last of his well-wishers take their share of his victory cake and make their way homeward. His tour has taken him from the Stakes Barn, past the infield revelers, onto the track and into the winner's circle. He looks like a horse that will sleep well tonight.