What if they'd hooked up? What if Safely Kept had had a two-length lead turning for home, with Housebuster in hot pursuit? What if . . .
The Sprint is the traditional jump-start to the Breeders' Cup championships, but it became an anticlimax Thursday when Safely Kept was retired with an injury. With her defection goes one of racing's most anticipated clashes of recent memory.
Although there were few down moments to the Maryland-bred mare's brilliant 24-for-31 career, the biggest disappointment is that she never got a real chance to defeat Housebuster, the other big-name sprinter of the past two seasons.
Housebuster will be an even bigger favorite Saturday at Churchill Downs. The colt won the only meeting between him and Safely Kept, but that victory in the De Francis Dash at Laurel Race Course in July was tainted by a terrible break from the gate for Safely Kept, normally a lightning-quick starter.
Safely Kept, second-leading all-time earner among Maryland-breds, was troubled lately by heat in a ligament, forcing her connections to retire her. As early as eight days ago, owner Barry Weisbord said the 5-year-old mare was not 100 percent and might have to skip the sprint, which was scheduled to be her career finale.
The Breeders' Cup has made a tradition of starting -- or putting the final touches on -- some terrific rivalries, such as Spend a Buck-Chief's Crown, Ferdinand-Alysheba, and Sunday Silence-Easy Goer. Reason surely prevailed in the tough decision to scratch her, but sadly, the what-ifs of Safely Kept and her rivalry with Housebuster will always be with us.
Interestingly, the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies also may be without one of its stars -- but not because of injury.
Easy Now, a half-sister to Easy Goer, was eligible for the Fillies, but she was evidently excluded from a field of 14 by a selection committee because of a light campaign. She is 2-for-2 lifetime after an easy win at 1-10 odds in the Astarita Stakes at Aqueduct three days ago.
Easy Now, by Danzig out of Relaxing, could still draw into the race if just one other pre-entered horse is scratched before
Wednesday morning, when entries will be taken.
Laurel has designed a Breeders' Cup information center at its main grandstand entrance, primarily to acquaint fans with the new national Pick-7 wager.
Wagers in the co-mingled pool, which could exceed $10 million, will be accepted at Laurel/Pimlico on Thursday, Friday and up to five minutes before the first Breeders' Cup race Saturday.
Laurel experimented with a direct-mail promotion for Budweiser International day and elicited enough response that track president Joe De Francis said the track will likely try it again soon.
The track mailed vouchers worth as little as $2 and as much as $25,000, to some 65,000 patrons, De Francis said. Fans did not know a ticket's value until it was run through a pari-mutuel machine.
"We had about $20,000 in redemptions," he said. "Nobody cashed the $25,000 ticket or the $5,000 ticket, but we did have several $1,000 winners. We had about 7,000 fans responded, which is a very significant percentage when you consider we expanded well past our core list of Laurel patrons."
Combined attendance on International day (25,111) was the highest for the race since 1977, and the handle ($3,095,219) was second-highest in race history.
The New York Racing Association conducted a similar promotion in September for the Woodward Stakes, and its management was reportedly ecstatic with the response (about 17 percent). Its mailer yielded the largest Belmont Park crowd in years (28,842) for a program other than the Breeders' Cup or the Belmont Stakes.
The Maryland Million has expanded beyond its one-day September program. Beginning next year, a total of $250,000 will be offered in 11 races.
Five of those races, each run on Maryland's other big days, will be restricted to Maryland Million nominees. Premiums for Maryland Million nominees will be offered in five open stakes races, and a premium will be offered in one steeplechase race.
"We wanted to provide more opportunities throughout the year," said Maryland Million chairman and founder Jim McKay, "both for Maryland Million-eligible horses to earn purses and for nominated Maryland-based stallions to earn awards."