Magic Johnson did not appear at the Alibi Breakfast at Pimlico Race Course on Friday morning, but of all those connected with last-place finisher Honor Grades, Johnson had the best excuse of all after the running of the 116th Preakness yesterday.
While Honor Grades was wilting in the stretch to finish eighth, 14 lengths behind winner Hansel, Johnson was closing with his customary flourish in Portland, Ore., helping his Los Angeles Lakers upset the Portland Trail Blazers in Game 1 of the National Basketball Association Western Conference finals.
For Johnson, a basketball millionaire who is seeking his own NBA franchise, this was his first venture into horse racing as a part owner and, perhaps, his last.
Hockey superstar Wayne Gretzky also had a piece of the action with California sports baron Bruce McNall, and flew in from the film festival in Cannes, France, with his wife Janet Jones, an actresss. After the race, Gretzky was seen gliding toward the exit gate faster than Honor Grades moved toward the finish line.
But trainer Rodney Rash, who was raised in Carroll County and was making his major stakes debut in his home state, offered no excuses for Honor Grades, a 25-1 shot.
Said Rash, who apprenticed as a teen-ager in California under legendary trainer Charlie Whittingham, "We were asking a lot of him, coming right from running a mile in April at the Derby Trial (where Honor Grades finished second) to a mile and 3/16th without a step up in between.
"Early in the race, he was laying off Strike The Gold, and he made an awful nice run going down the backstretch. I thought he ran a strong race for what we asked of him."
If nothing else, Honor Grades, a half-brother to 1990 Preakness winner Summer Squall, ran a consistent race. He was seventh at the start, half-mile marker and three-quarters pole before slipping to eighth in the stretch.
"No, I'm not embarrassed," said Rash, 31. "My mother said there would be days like this. Heck, we finished less than three lengths behind the Derby winner, Strike the Gold. This was an awfully strong field."
Rash said he did not give any special pre-race instructions to jockey Chris McCarron.
"What am I going to tell one of the best jockeys in the world?" Rash said.
McCarron offered no alibis for his Kentucky-bred mount.
"My horse had no excuses," said McCarron, who won two previous races on yesterday's card. "He didn't break real sharp. I got into him at the half-mile pole, but they just outran him today and he got real tired toward the end. I didn't think this track was as fast as in past Preaknesses."
Maybe Honor Grades needed an assist from Johnson. Carrying the Lakers is one thing. But carrying a horse across the finish line might be just too much to ask, even for Johnson.