The connections of Unbridled's Song -- that high-strung but highly regarded colt who by turns has suffered from a sore foot, lung infection, ulcer and, some would say, shameful mismanagement -- now threaten to send their shell-shocked warrior back into the fray against the great destroyer, Cigar.
Can you imagine it: Unbridled's Song vs. the world's greatest thoroughbred in Saturday's nationally televised Arlington Citation Challenge at Arlington International Racecourse near Chicago?
Ernie Paragallo, the unconventional 38-year-old owner of Unbridled's Song, said in a telephone interview from New York's Belmont Park that a decision would be made after the colt's workout Tuesday morning where to stage his comeback race -- actually, his second comeback race. Such last-minute decisions affecting the career of such an outstanding racehorse are commonplace with this camp.
Then Paragallo referred this reporter for further comment to the Daily Racing Form, which quoted him as saying:
"Cigar is probably the best horse to come around in the last 20 years. But if he is ever going to get beat, this is the race where he is the most vulnerable.
"He has been toying with the same group of handicap horses for a while. Now the 3-year-olds are in the picture, and some of them are better than the older horses."
Unbridled's Song is 3, the age when developing thoroughbreds confront the grueling Triple Crown series. The gray son of Unbridled succumbed after finishing a game fifth as the favorite in the Kentucky Derby -- a race Paragallo now says the colt shouldn't have been asked to run.
Hindered by a quarter crack and tender left forefoot, Unbridled's Song raced with a protective plate called an egg-bar shoe on both front feet. The shoe elevated the sore foot off the dirt but afforded less traction than standard shoes.
"We were inexperienced in the Kentucky Derby, and looking back, it was a mistake to run him with an egg-bar shoe," Paragallo said. "But he got over his foot problem . . . His biggest problem was his ulcers, but we've treated him with antibiotics . . . It has all cleared up."
After a too-brief layoff following the Derby, Unbridled's Song finished a badly beaten second as the 3-10 favorite in the May 26 Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont. His second comeback -- if not the 1 1/8 -mile Citation Challenge with its potential purse of $1.05 million -- likely will be next Sunday's more modest $75,000 Long Branch Stakes at 1 1/16 miles for 3-year-olds at Monmouth Park.
"If that race [at Arlington] was a mile and a sixteenth, Unbridled's Song would definitely be in it," Paragallo said. "My concern is that a mile and an eighth is not the optimum distance for this horse to come back at."
But caution has not been the strength of the Unbridled's Song's team. Whereas with Bill Mott, trainer of Cigar, caution, patience and good judgment have been the norm.
Mott pulled his star horse from the June 29 $1 million Hollywood Gold Cup because of a foot bruise. Arlington International responded by creating the Citation Challenge, in which the Maryland-bred Cigar will attempt to equal Citation's 20th-century, North-American record of 16 wins in a row.
The nation's best-known trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, initially criticized the race as "unhealthy for racing" when "the owners of one horse can dictate the terms." But then he entered one of his own, the speedball Honour and Glory, who in his last start against older horses ran the fastest mile in the 103-year history of Belmont's Metropolitan Mile.
As a 3-year-old, Honour and Glory will receive a large weight break from Cigar -- just as Unbridled's Song would if he shows up. Cigar will carry 130 pounds, the same as in his most recent romp, the June 1 Massachusetts Handicap.
Others expected are Dramatic Gold, Eltish, Jambalaya Jazz, Polar Expedition and Tenants Harbor.
Prospective challengers Star Standard and Key of Luck are on the shelf with injuries, and Soul of the Matter is nursing a foot bruise.
Mixed feeling on Arlington
Despite his apparent change of heart, Lukas isn't the only prominent member of the horse-racing industry with misgivings about the Arlington race.
"Although in this particular case it will probably work out fine, I have mixed feelings about creating races like this," said Joe De Francis, principal owner of Pimlico and Laurel Park. "There's so much free-lance stuff like this happening that it's not in the best long-term interest of the game.
"The stars have to be made by the established events, not vice versa. That's how Cigar got to be where he is today. Otherwise, it's chaos."
De Francis said he talked briefly with racing officials about possibly increasing the Pimlico Special purse in an attempt to lure Cigar. But it was clear the May 11 race wasn't on trainer Mott's agenda. And anyway, De Francis said, it's not as if Marylanders never had the chance to see Cigar. Although not yet a worldwide star, Cigar won last year's Pimlico Special, No. 7 of his streak.