LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- It was only practice.
But when the two colts, like fighters going through their final sparring sessions, took to the track yesterday morning, it became perfectly clear.
Or, as clear as anything can be, when you're dealing with non-talking mammals.
The challenger, Strike The Gold, had knocked off the champion, Fly So Free, one race too soon.
Strike The Gold had won the preliminary, but Fly So Free is now going to take the main event.
Both colts engaged in their last important drills for Saturday's 117th Kentucky Derby, and the difference in their workouts was night-and-day.
Fly So Free dazzled.
Strike The Gold seemed dull.
Three weeks ago Fly So Free sulked in the Blue Grass Stakes after his rider held him back, and Strike The Gold blew by him like he was the second coming of Alysheba.
All of a sudden Fly So Free, the 2-year-old champ and early Derby favorite, was a bum.
Or as Fly So Free's owner, Tommy Valando, a music publisher and hit show producer, said trackside: "It was like a [Broadway] show that didn't make it. They [the critics] beat you to death."
But did Nick Zito, trainer of Strike The Gold, get suckered too soon?
Strike The Gold, just to prove he belonged, ran the race of his life in the Blue Grass. But when he went to the track yesterday, he looked, well, slow.
Had this horse, after a sustained half-mile drive in the Blue Grass, left his best race at Keeneland? Is he mentally tapped out? Could any athlete run that kind of race again so soon? He didn't just beat Fly So Free, he buried him.
The body language of the two trainers seemed to tell it all.
Scotty Schulhofer was so elated he almost bounced after Fly So Free went a half-mile in a shade over 46 seconds under a stranglehold.
Zito just looked glum.
With his Derby jock Chris Antley up, Strike The Gold had gone the same distance just an hour earlier in 51 2/5 seconds, almost five seconds slower than Fly So Free. Strike The Gold galloped out five furlongs in 1:05 4/5, or about the same time it would take a jumper in Monkton.
Back at the barn, Schulhofer said the Blue Grass had been a fluke.
He blamed the loss partly on the instructions he had given Jose Santos, the colt's jock. He told Santos to stay off the lead in that race, but then when the jock asked the colt to run, he couldn't get hold of the track. Fly So Free was discouraged from being held back and spit out the bit.
"This is a changed horse," Schulhofer said. "He's mad because he got beat, and he's much more aggressive now. I'm more confident about winning this race [the Derby] than I've ever been going into any other race."
Fly So Free's exercise rider, Robert Caputo, echoed Schulhofer. "This is the sharpest this colt has been. He loves this track. Now it's 'come-catch-me' time."
Schulhofer compared Fly So Free's loss in the Blue Grass to the same kind of drubbing Unbridled took last year. Unbridled, trained by Carl Nafzger, ran third in the Blue Grass but then won the Derby.
"Last year, everybody wrote off Unbridled after that loss," Schulhofer said. "But then on Sunday morning [the day after the Derby], Carl got the last laugh.
"I just laugh about it, too. Everybody's fickle. They all love a winner. They saw Fly So Free's race in the Blue Grass and said, 'Forget him, he's no good.' But I never got off him. He's always No. 1 with me."
Meanwhile, an unsmiling Zito was rationalizing his colt's move. He said he prepared the horse the same way for the Blue Grass upset.
Strike The Gold worked a half-mile three days before the Blue Grass in 49 3/5 seconds, also with Antley up. But that was about two seconds faster than yesterday's plodding effort.
Still, Zito was making the best of it.
"He went the last eighth in 12 flat in an open gallop," Zito said. "The boy was just sitting on him in an open gallop. Tomorrow [today] he goes back to the track. That's the way we do it. This is the way we did it for the Blue Grass and this is the way we are going to do it for the Kentucky Derby."
Might be, Nick's right.
The horses themselves weren't talking.
They'll be doing that with their hooves on Saturday, just about at the quarter pole.