Union City's final race ended in a horse ambulance parked on a dusty lot by a maintenance shop some 100 yards from the starting gate of the 118th Preakness Stakes.
Inside the white van, a covered 20-foot metal stall, Dr. Dan Dreyfuss prepared the lethal injection that quickly would extinguish the life of the 3-year-old colt, whose right front ankle was bent, broken and bloody. The veterinarian emptied a 100 cc bottle of sodium pentabarbitol into three syringes. He then took a needle and stuck it into the horse's neck, on the left side, finding the jugular vein.
Moving quickly now, Dreyfuss delivered the fluid from all three syringes into the needle and stepped back, waiting for Union City to fall into a deep, irreversible slumber.
"It took less than a minute from the time I started the injections until he was down and dead," he said.
Dreyfuss took out his stethoscope to make sure the horse's heart had stopped beating. He checked for any reflexes and found none. He then opened the ankle to reconfirm his diagnosis that the colt had sustained irreparable bone and ligament
damage during a last run for greatness at Pimlico Race Course.
It was a few minutes past 6 p.m. on May 15 when Dreyfuss emerged from the van. The sun was up and the sky was blue, and the crowd was pouring out of the infield and grandstand. For the 85,495 fans, it had been a glorious day of racing and partying, a spectacle that ended with the Preakness triumph of the gelding Prairie Bayou.
But for Dreyfuss, it was a day when all of his medical training was used to bring death, not life, to a wounded animal, horse racing's first TripleCrown fatality in 34 years.
Yesterday, Preakness winner Prairie Bayou became the second when the gelding was destroyed after suffering a compound fracture in his left front leg in the Belmont Stakes.
"It's horrible," Dreyfuss said of putting a horse down. "If I ever get used to doing it, I'll quit practicing."
Union City, a hard-working racehorse named after a blue-collar Michigan community, was a beautiful bay with a few flecks of white who won two races and $183,265 in 11 lifetime starts.
He was the third betting favorite at the Kentucky Derby, faded in the stretch, and finished 15th. He started from the No. 6 post position at the Preakness and broke down more than a half-mile from the finish.
On a day meant for racing glory, Union City ran fast and died young.
This is his story.
A normal beginning
Overbrook Farm is an expanse of 1,500 rolling acres tucked in Fayette County in the heart of Kentucky bluegrass country. The place is owned by William T. Young, 76, who made his first millions manufacturing peanut butter, before branching out into warehousing, trucking and frozen-food distribution.
Now, he chases after stakes winners after transforming his farm into an elite breeding operation in the mid-1980s.
It was at Overbrook, Jan. 18, 1990, that a foal was born. The birth was natural. The foal was strong. Eventually, he was given a name from the pages of a Rand McNally road atlas.
"The name sort of fit him," said Jim Cannon, the farm manager. "He was workmanlike. He didn't get excited about anything. He was quiet around the barn. He dominated the paddock he was in. But he was not an absolute wild man."
With D. Wayne Lukas, perhaps the best-known horse trainer in America, Union City would be shaped and molded into a racing contender. And Lukas came to see Union City as a horse good enough to win the Kentucky Derby.
Union City broke his maiden as a 2-year-old at Churchill Downs on Thanksgiving Day 1992 and charged into the Derby picture April 3, 1993, finishing a strong second at the Santa Anita Derby.
When the horse arrived back in Louisville for the Kentucky Derby, Lukas was ebullient. He assured all that Union City was the jewel among this year's Triple Crown horses.
"He's going to raise some hell," Lukas said.
Instead of raising hell, Union City raised questions, finishing 15th after faltering badly during the stretch run.
Lukas, who declined to be interviewed for this article, appeared baffled and later said he was "mystified" by the horse's performance.
Despite the poor performance, the decision was made by Young to bring the colt to the Preakness.
In the days leading to the race, Lukas, normally affable and quotable, was clearly concerned. He was brusque with questioners and spent hours inside Stall 18 of the Stakes Barn, peering at Union City. He also soaked the horse's legs in ice, which is usually a sign the animal is sore. Although Union City had no strenuous workouts before the Preakness, Lukas maintained the animal was fit.
Still, the day before the Preakness, at the Alibi Breakfast, Lukas couldn't help making pointed fun of Union City.
"I never went into a race any higher than I did with that horse going into the Derby," Lukas said. "He let me down. He went into the tank with me."
The crowd laughed. So did Lukas.
L Within 24 hours, the trainer would be on the verge of tears.
A bright start