LAUREL -- Miracle Wood made the short walk from the Laurel Race Course paddock to the racetrack. It was just another day at work for an old warhorse.
Little fanfare would follow the winner of that race last month, an $8,500 claiming event. A few curious fans might have gathered around the winner's circle for a peek, as they do for any other race. And that would be that.
But it wasn't always that way for Miracle Wood.
Four and a half years ago, Miracle Wood was one of seven horses in the 1986 Preakness at Pimlico Race Course. Others in that race -- Ferdinand, Broad Brush, Snow Chief and Groovy -- would become marquee names.
His more famous brethren long since have retired to the breeding shed. Miracle Wood, however, has faded into the obscurity of Maryland's claiming ranks.
"This is what he wants," said Ferris Allen, who trains the 7-year-old gelding for his father, Albert, a retired Richmond, Va., businessman.
Allen, 39, has trained Miracle Wood for most of his 92-race career. As a 2-year-old, the gelding won the $150,000 Maryland Juvenile Championship. At 3, his best year, Miracle Wood finished in the money in seven stakes. His career peak, Allen said, came early that year, when he was second in the Jim Beam and Woodlawn stakes, and third in the Cherry Hill Mile and Garden State Stakes.
His Woodlawn race earned him a berth in the Preakness.
"I took that for what it was," Allen said. "I figured he could run third, behind Ferdinand and Snow Chief. But anything can happen in a horse race."
Miracle Wood, at 20-1, was the longest shot among six betting entities. He was never a factor, as Snow Chief won by four lengths over Ferdinand. Miracle Wood was fifth, beaten 12 lengths.
"I got a charge out of the whole thing, getting to meet people like [Bill] Hartack and [Jack] Whitaker [working as ABC broadcasters]," Allen said. "It was a nice experience."
But Miracle Wood wasn't up to the big boys of his class.
"I figured he was in a little over his head, so I decided to lay back and make one run," recalled his Preakness jockey, Donnie Miller. "He was flying through the lane, then started hanging at the sixteenth pole. He only got beat a length and a half by Broad Brush and Badger Land."
"If you notice the way I mapped out his schedule, you'll see that 90 percent of the time I picked the easiest spot available," Allen said. "Once in a while, I'd let him take a shot at a tough race, like the Preakness."
In his first four years of racing, the gelding won $433,747 for the Allens. His form gradually slipped, however, and he eventually would run in claiming races. Finally, in the spring of 1989, Miracle Wood was claimed for $25,000 by John Salzman.
"I had the standard thoughts about losing any horse to a claim," said Allen, an ex-high school teacher and baseball coach. "I thought I'd been doing the right things for him all along."
Miracle Wood would win just once for Salzman. "But we didn't lose much on him," Salzman said, alluding to numerous in-the-money finishes. When Salzman entered Miracle Wood on the bottom $5,000 level on Oct. 27, 1989, Allen reclaimed the horse for his father.
"We were about the only people on Earth that it made sense for to claim him," Allen said. "We had all that money in the bank with him. He'd been so good to us. I wanted to make sure that everything was being done right by him, and $5,000 was a small price to pay."
He won his first race after being claimed back by his old friends. "It was a charge," Allen said of the $12,000 race.
Miracle Wood moved up slightly in class for Allen and resumed his grind-it-out ways, running second or third more often than not. Then, physical problems that led to his original decline -- "Just a lot of little things, mostly respiratory and leg problems," Allen said -- forced Allen to rest him a while. In four races since the layoff, Miracle Wood has been dull. In his last race, he ran seventh last month, beaten 13 lengths.
"Not much to say," jockey Mary Wiley told Allen after dismounting.
"If he runs two or three more races like these, we'll have to call it quits," Allen said. "We certainly won't abuse him. He won't go to Charles Town. He won't be somebody's riding horse.
"The reason we're still running him is this is what he wants to do. He wants to be at the race track. I don't think he's going to be happy as a turn-out horse or pensioner, so as long as he's competitive and stays healthy, this is what he'll do."
Miracle Wood may be a shell of his old self, but Allen has ensured that he always will be given special attention.
"It's like training a ghost," Allen said. "Once in a while, you see that spark in his eye. It's like he wants to do it, but he can't. There's that desire and that fire, but it's like watching the old-timers play baseball in Florida. You know just by watching them move that something used to be there."