LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Horse rumors often start with a kernel of truth - a physical idiosyncrasy suddenly becomes an Achilles heel, an equipment change that would be unnoticed or ignored some other week gets studied and analyzed.
This, however, is Kentucky Derby week.
Kentucky Derby horses, especially top Derby contenders, are scrutinized from all angles. Railbirds watch, binoculars focus in, and everybody talks - except the trainers, who typically don't say much more than their horses, adding to the intrigue.
A subpar performance in a Derby prep, or even in a morning gallop, demands answers, and there is no shortage of smart guys willing to fill the vacuum, offering opinion or gossip as cold fact. Some horse always doesn't take to the track surface. Another contender usually is about to scratch.
"The racetrack is like a breeding ground for ants, and the ants are the rumors, and they're crawling all over the picnic table," said William Nack, author of Secretariat, the Making of a Champion, who witnessed the phenomenon firsthand in 1973. Even the great Secretariat wasn't immune to rumors.
"The better the horse, the better the rumors," said D. Wayne Lukas, who will be saddling his 45th Derby horse in Saturday's Run for the Roses. Lukas, who has won the Derby four times, probably wishes there were more rumors about his horse. Optimizer is 50-1 in the morning line.
"I always tell people, if you've got an average horse, nobody wants to know anything about it," Lukas said outside his barn Thursday morning. "If you've got a good one, everyone will train it for you."
Since Union Rags, this year's 9-2 morning line second choice, trained by Michael Matz, didn't win his last Derby prep, he now attracts CIA-level scrutiny. Union Rags came back from the track all sweated-up! (Yes, as usual.) Union Rags wore a tongue-tie for a couple of days - they must not be happy with the horse if they're still experimenting!
"That was my idea," assistant trainer Peter Brette said of the tongue-tie. "If you watch him, he always plays with his tongue. I just thought it might make him concentrate a little better [during his gallops]. We did it for two days. He really didn't enjoy it. He was grinding his teeth. We left it off [Wednesday] and he galloped beautifully, and he was a much happier horse."
Any other week, nobody notices. Here, it brought up the question: If Union Rags is ready to run big in the Derby, why are they experimenting with equipment changes?
"This is what you expect Derby week," Brette said of the scrutiny. "You just roll with it."
This week, Creative Cause didn't go to the track for two days after his workout. Rumors of a scratch abounded.
It turned out 71-year-old trainer Mike Harrington, at his first Derby, always has the horse walk for two days (instead of the more customary one day) after a workout. Since the Santa Anita Derby runner-up has won $869,000, Harrington wasn't inclined to change tactics. And the horse, 12-1 in the morning line, was on the track Thursday, quelling the rumor mill.
In 2005, there was a good Derby Day rumor, middle of the day. Afleet Alex was going to scratch! (Reason unknown.) The source was a respected purveyor of rumors, sometimes accurate. A quick trip to the barn that day revealed business as usual. Afleet Alex ran third that day, missing the Derby crown by a length after a troubled trip, but went on to win the Preakness and the Belmont.
That rumor was from outer space. Rumors about problems with 2009 morning-line favorite I Want Revenge turned out to be all too true. He was scratched on race day. The flip side: Barely a word was heard about second choice A.P. Indy in 1992 and he was scratched on race day.
Rumors and opinion can whip around the Twitter-sphere, practically becoming conventional wisdom in a morning. Then again, "There's so much coverage nowadays - if somebody has wrong information, somebody is going to set him right," said Bruno De Julio, a racing lifer who has his own paid website and a Twitter feed. He makes the point that saying a horse is training well when it isn't does not help the betting public, either. (He has been consistent in his praise of Union Rags.)
"If something sounds sort of believable, you might ask around," said Bob Fortus of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, at his usual perch along the backside rail Thursday morning. "But you just have to take everything with a grain of salt. Keep your mind open to what might be happening."
Nack didn't just write the book on Secretariat, he lived the horse's Triple Crown run. When the colt hiccupped badly in his last Derby prep, finishing third in the Wood Memorial, the rumor mill was open for business around the clock, Nack said.
"The most prominent propagator of those rumors was Jimmy 'the Greek' Snyder, the Las Vegas gambler who had written a column that Secretariat had a bad knee, or a bad ankle, and was standing in ice," Nack said.
Since Nack had spent weeks basically living at Secretariat's barn, other reporters sought his opinion.
"I never saw an ice cube around the horse, except in a glass of ice tea," Nack said. "That horse was as sound as an oak tree. He came on to the racetrack sound, and he left it sound. . . . At first it was a little maddening. People kept asking me, 'Was it true?' I kept saying, 'It's not true.' Whatever was wrong, it was a mystery."
It later came out that Secretariat had an abscess in his gum and probably should have been scratched in the Wood.
There was a nugget that made the rumor seem believable, Nack said. Secretariat, who went on to run the fastest Derby in history, was arthritic.
"When he left the barn in the morning, when he first started walking, it was like, 'Oh, ouch.' He looked like he was 'ouchy,' " Nack said. "Once he got into a gallop and warmed up . . . it went away."
So that was the kernel of truth . . ..
"A kernel that grew into a tree," Nack said.