John Ed Anthony was in position to make history this year at the Preakness Stakes, but instead of attempting to become the first thoroughbred owner in 112 years to win the race three straight times, he will not even attend the race Saturday at Pimlico Race Course.
Mr. Anthony's powerful Loblolly Stable not only failed to produce a horse worthy of competing in the Triple Crown series this year, but soon will cease to exist.
Mr. Anthony, 55, stood at the pinnacle of the sport a year ago, when he joined Calumet Farm and Harry Payne Whitney as the only owners to win back-to-back Preaknesses in the 20th century. But he has spent the last year coping with tragedy, failure and the stunning reality of having to shut down Loblolly and start over in the racing business.
"I'd give anything to be in Baltimore defending our Preakness title, but it's just not going to happen," Mr. Anthony said last week from his office in Fordyce, Ark., where he operates his sprawling timber business.
His misfortunes began last June, when his late-blooming gelding Prairie Bayou, runner-up in the Kentucky Derby and winner of the Preakness, shattered a leg in New York's Belmont Stakes and had to be destroyed.
"The horse was strong and sound, had never had any physical problems, was on one of the safest tracks in America, just galloping along at the back of the pack, not even extended, and took a step and shattered his leg," Mr. Anthony said. "More than anything, the emotion I felt was absolute astonishment."
Wild-eyed, unable to stand, the horse was taken by ambulance from the track to the Loblolly barn. After conferring with veterinarians, Anthony reluctantly agreed to have the horse euthanized a half-hour after the race. He is still haunted by his decision.
"They [the vets] kept telling me no horse had recovered from such an injury," Mr. Anthony said. "I kept saying, 'Death is always an option, but why do we have to do it now?' They finally convinced me the situation just wasn't going to change. But I have often wondered if it wasn't the right time to try some of the radical [surgical] procedures that are out there. The horse was a classic champion."
Mr. Anthony received a stack of letters and faxes and "too many phone calls and kind words to count" after Prairie Bayou's death. Last week, almost a year later, he received $5 from a woman in New York who wanted the money spent on flowers for the horse's grave at Longfield Farm, in Goshen, Ky.
The tragedy cast a pall over Loblolly Stable that lasted "into the fall," Mr. Anthony said, overlapping with the start of the racing careers of the stable's crop of 2-year-olds, those horses eligible for this year's Triple Crown. Watching that crop fail him like no other in his two decades in racing, Mr. Anthony has come to suspect that Prairie Bayou's death was part of the problem.
Loblolly trainer Tom Bohannan and the rest of the barn personnel "had their heads down for months, their enthusiasm for their jobs dampened," Mr. Anthony said.
Mr. Bohannan agreed. "I was depressed," he said. "We all were depressed. Mr. Anthony was depressed. My confidence went down. But it didn't last a year."
More integral to the failure of the crop was the randomness of genetics, the intrinsic unpredictability of racing. Mr. Anthony followed the same blueprint he had followed every year while building Loblolly -- he bred his best mares to expensive sires, and bought several pricey sale horses -- but this time it just failed to deliver.
There were 37 horses in the crop early last year, 37 horses with the opportunity to prove themselves of Triple Crown mettle. Putting a price tag on such an item is difficult, but Anthony estimates that it costs between $35,000 and $40,000 to raise a single horse from a newborn to a race-ready 3-year-old. "It cost a ton of money," Mr. Anthony said of the crop. In return, he got remarkably little back in racing talent.
"We just ran out of bullets," Mr. Anthony said. "It's an amazing thing. With some crops you have outstanding talent everywhere, and with other crops, none. We had 25 horses left after we weeded out the bottom, and out of those 25, we didn't get scratch."
Mr. Bohannan said, "Only 15 or 20 horses run in the Triple Crownraces out of 35,000 foals born in a year [in North America], so the odds are against you to begin with. I think we do a better job than most. You can't have a super horse every year.
'Three-peat' in jeopardy
Mr. Anthony and Mr. Bohannan knew as early as last fall that the Preakness "three-peat" was in jeopardy. "As the year went along we could see more and more clearly that this group was ordinary," Mr. Anthony said. "Really not even as good as %J ordinary."
The best of the crop was a half-brother to Prairie Bayou, a colt named Bayou Bartholomew. But he raced inconsistently, then was injured in the Arkansas Derby and retired.
"Had he shown himself to be good enough, we would have pointed him to the Preakness," Mr. Anthony said. "We wanted badly to bring a horse there."