To watch Rodney Rash walk his colt, Honor Grades, around the Pimlico stables after his morning workout is like watching a first-time father guide his child by the hand.
And when the 31-year-old trainer speaks to the jumpy horse, as he's being washed and groomed following the ride, the words are calm and soothing and reassuring, again like the sounds of a dad who is plying his craft for the first time.
The analogy is apt, for when Rash, a native of Woodbine in Carroll County, comes home to run Honor Grades in Saturday's Preakness, it will be only his second race as a trainer.
And to say that Rash is looking forward to this race is an understatement.
"It's like out of a fairy book," Rash said. "It's a story to be coming back and in my second start to be running in the Preakness, a race that I saw as a kid and I dreamed about, being on national TV.
"To get the support of the clientele that I have behind me to put me here is kind of overwhelming sometimes, and I'm very grateful for my blessings."
Rash's clientele for the Preakness is as heavyweight as it gets, for Honor Grades is owned by a partnership consisting of Los Angeles Kings owner Bruce McNall, Kings hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, and Los Angeles Lakers great Earvin "Magic" Johnson.
Needless to say, the owners haven't had much time to get to know the horse. That's Rash's department. Rash served his apprenticeship with legendary trainer Charlie Whittingham in California for 16 years, and was his head assistant for nine years, before leaving Whittingham a few weeks ago to strike out on his own.
Rosen said McNall's firm decided to keep the horse on the East Coast and had been pleased with the way Whittingham had trained a number of McNall's horses in the West.
So, when they heard that Rash was leaving Whittingham to come East, Rosen said they contacted him about traveling with the horse to get a feel for what it could do.
Rash, who inherited Honor Grades in April, says he is looking forward to the challenge of making a name for himself.
"I'm not so much anxious because I've been through it so much at the big races with Charlie," said Rash. "I feel we're doing the right thing by the colt and no matter where he runs, I think he'll run well.
"That's all you can expect out of a young horse," Rash said. "I don't think anxious is the right word. I think I'm more proud, very excited to come back to Maryland, being born and raised here."
For his first big chance, Rash has an intriguing opportunity with Honor Grades, a Danzig colt who ran a promising race in the Derby Trial, a preliminary to the Kentucky Derby.
"He had one start in Florida for Neil Howard where he dead-heated with another horse in a seven-eighths race," Rash said. "That was a very nice race and that was what attracted us to the horse."
He then ran in the Derby Trial, finishing second to Alydavid.
"I was tickled with his race in the Trial," Rash said. "For a flat mile, he closed a lot of ground. It let us know the colt a little better. He came out of the race really well."
Rash and the ownership group decided not to run the horse in the Derby, but to evaluate the field.
"We just thought we'd sit back and take a close look at the Derby and not run in it," said Rash. "We have a young horse that's on his way up and we didn't think it was in his best interest to run him back that quickly.
"We looked at the Derby and saw that this would be a smaller field," Rash said of the Preakness. "We have a horse that wants this distance. If you want to go farther with him later, Belmont or the grass races, we could do that. We need to start getting some distance races in him. So, here we are to try him and see what he's made of."
Honor Grades has an interesting blood line, with Secretariat as his grand sire and Summer Squall, who won last year's Preakness and finished second in last week's Pimlico Special, as his half-brother.
"It's awful neat to come in here and have Summer Squall running in the Pimlico Special the week before," said Rash. "He [Honor Grades] should have a great future ahead of him."