BALTIMORE - The last four years, the Preakness Stakes has featured contending horses from just up Interstate 95. All of them, from eventual Preakness runaway winners Smarty Jones and Afleet Alex through ill-fated Barbaro and hardy Hard Spun, have been Pennsylvania-bred, or at least their owners were Pennsylvania-breds.
This time, no.
Today's 133d Preakness Stakes, the race itself, is all about a horse from farther up the road, a New York-based, Kentucky-bred colt who has romped in each of his four lifetime starts and ignored a wide trip - took advantage of it, in fact - to win the Kentucky Derby by 43/4 lengths. Going in, there isn't a horse at the Preakness that can scare heavy favorite Big Brown.
"If they break good, I'm sure things will go good for us," said Big Brown's trainer, Rick Dutrow. "When you come out of the gate and the horse stumbles pretty bad, right away horses are in front and you've got a lot of things you have to deal with. So the break, in my opinion, is the only issue we have to worry about."
The only other major subplot obviously involves the safety of the participants, after Eight Belles broke down and was euthanized after finishing second at the Kentucky Derby. Race organizers are fully aware that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals plans to protest today at Pimlico Race Course.
Talking this week at Pimlico, Dutrow acknowledged not liking the two weeks between the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, though he added, "It doesn't mean Big Brown won't like it." Recent history suggests the quick turnaround shouldn't be much of a factor. More than any other Triple Crown race, the Preakness has favored the most talented horse. The last seven years, the Preakness winner went on to win the Eclipse award for 3-year-old horse of the year.
Still, Big Brown's jockey, Kent Desormeaux, knows history can't lead a horse around the track. Desormeaux showed up here in 2000 with Derby winner and 3-10 favorite Fusaichi Pegasus, who finished second to Red Bullet. "I thought there was no way he could lose - he went from the third fastest Derby to the third slowest Preakness. How, I still don't know. Fifty yards out of the gate, I knew he was done."
Talking yesterday at Pimlico, Desormeaux also went over his greatest near-miss when Real Quiet, about to win the Triple Crown, couldn't hold on at the Belmont Stakes in 1998.
"He got beat a lip," Desormeaux said. "He was not tired; he pulled himself up. The only time Victory Gallop was ahead of him was at the wire."
So far, Desormeaux's biggest competition concerning Big Brown may have been getting on the horse. Dutrow had planned to use Edgar Prado. But managing partner Michael Iavarone had told Desormeaux he'd use him on a nice horse, and Big Brown turned out to be that horse.
"You've got to play the game," Dutrow said yesterday, talking in general about trainers' sometimes needing to accept the decisions of owners or face being replaced themselves.
Prado said yesterday he already had worked the horse three times. Asked about what he thought when told he wouldn't be on Big Brown, Prado smiled and said, "You don't want to know."
Today, Prado is on Riley Tucker, 30-1 in the morning line. "I hope he runs an A-plus race and Big Brown runs his B-minus," Prado said, speaking for the rest of the field.
The other reason Big Brown is such a prohibitive favorite is that a mediocre race by his standards still should beat this field. In looking at which of the other 11 horses might finish second, it might be a matter of finding the one with the best excuse. Four of them have never won a race. Gayego is the 8-1 morning-line second choice based on his Arkansas Derby victory, not because he finished 17th at Churchill Downs, 363/4 lengths behind Big Brown.
For the people whose interest in the race is a bit like a
six degrees of Smarty Jones,
Hey Byrn may be their horse. The colt is trained in Florida by Eddie Plesa Jr., who is married to the sister of John Servis, the trainer of Smarty Jones. However, Plesa said one reason Hey Byrn was in this race was that the horse's owner, Beatrice Oxenberg, is from Maryland and it was her birthday yesterday. Hey Byrn has to start from the outside gate.
The Preakness field was reduced to 12 horses yesterday when Behindatthebar, trained by Todd Pletcher, scratched with a bruised left front hoof. His fan support may move to Tres Borrachos, which translates to "three drunks."
Two dominant jockeys at Delaware Park, Ramon Dominguez and Jeremy Rose, have Preakness rides. Dominguez is on 30-1 Giant Moon, who finished fourth in the Wood Memorial in his last start. Rose is on 30-1 Icabad Crane, trained by Graham Motion at the Fair Hill Training Center in Elkton, Md. Expected to come from off the pace, Icabad Crane is the only horse with a win at Pimlico, taking the Federico Tesio Stakes in his last start.
Desormeaux talked yesterday of how he learned to ride in Maryland - "just living in the winner's circle. If I didn't win three, it was a bad day. If I go through a slow time, I actually do think about the times I had in Maryland."
When he was young, Desormeaux said, he thought he was the reason all the horses were winning. He'd never suggest such a thing with Big Brown.
"I'm definitely going to be loaded with butterflies, that's for sure," Desormeaux said yesterday. "While I'm sitting here talking to you, in the back of my mind, I'm daydreaming the race, over and over and over again."