Superstitions run deep in the racing business PREAKNESS '94

May 21, 1994|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Sun Staff Writer

If professional athletes rank among the world's most superstitious people, the folks at the race track aren't too far behind. In the world of horses, winning performances are often credited to luck as well as to ability.

"The most superstitious people I've run across are horse trainers," says Snowden Carter, former general manager of the Maryland Horse Breeders' Association.

Many trainers, in fact, avoid having publicity photographs taken of horses because of the bad luck they fear is the dark lining of special attention.

And they pass along cautionary tales.

Mr. Carter recalls a cover story that ran in The Maryland Horse magazine in 1978 when he served as its editor.

The horse, a brilliant 3-year-old filly named Caesar's Wish, met with an untimely end.

"She dropped dead in the Alabama States at Saratoga just when the magazine came out," Mr. Carter recalls. "The rumor going around after that was that cover pictures can really kill your horses."

Then there are the usual cultural apprehensions. Earlier this month, for instance, some trainers refused to work their horses on Friday the 13th.

"There are thousands of things like that," says Dale Austen, a publicist at Pimlico Race Track.

He recalls the late trainer Downie Bonsal, who used to carry dice and a worry stone -- both worn from rubbing.

And he says many track workers can't get through a story without "knocking on wood."

"I've seen people in the barn stop right in the middle of a sentence and go over and hit the side of the building," Mr. Austen says. "Or if they're in a place where there's no wood -- all you can find is plastic in some places -- they'll knock themselves on the head. It's a little ritual they go through."

Horse owners develop strategies as well. Some will watch their horses race only on the TV monitor in the clubhouse. Some insist upon wearing the same clothes they wore on a previous winning day. Some won't even come to the track when their horses run because they're afraid they might jinx them.

Mr. Austen recounts a story about Robert Meyerhoff, owner of Preakness starters Concern and Looming.

Last month, officials of Laurel Race Track arranged to present Mr. Meyerhoff with a trophy honoring him as "owner of the month." After he arrived at the track, however, Mr. Meyerhoff said he didn't want to receive the award until after his horses had finished running their races that day.

(Although Looming was disqualified from his race that day, Concern won a $500,000 stakes in Arkansas a half-hour later.)

Omens are a race track phenomenon as well.

Mr. Austen was most struck by an omen he encountered on Preakness Day in 1966. Mike Ford, owner of the Kentucky Derby-winning horse Kauai King, approached him with a puzzling observation about the Preakness lineup. Kauai King, number three, was followed by Advocator, Understanding, Amberoid and Indulto. The first letters of these names spelled out KAUAI.

"Mr. Ford showed the race card to me and said, 'What does this mean?' " Mr. Austen recalls. "He was looking for encouragement.

"And I said, 'It's gotta mean good luck.'

"He said, 'That's what I was thinking.' "

And Kauai King won.

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