Risen stars all rate on early morning line Daybreak: Fourteen hours before post time, few creatures in the stakes barn are stirring. But pre-dawn preparation makes a fast, optimistic break from the gate.

123rd Preakness

May 17, 1998|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

Reveille sounded at 3: 30 a.m. yesterday at Pimlico Race Course, when a mouse shrieked his last in the grasp of a cat. The noise caused a stir at the stakes barn, where a half-dozen mounts sprang to the doors of their darkened stalls, snorting derisively at the pre-dawn alarm.

Can't a horse get some sleep on Preakness eve?

Cape Town craned his neck, this way and that, peering out like a nosy neighbor. Hot Wells yawned twice and went back to bed. Classic Cat bobbed his head several times and pawed restlessly at his bedding, as if the sheets weren't tucked right. And Real Quiet, the second betting choice, was . well, real quiet, munching languidly on a mouthful of hay as if he hadn't a care in the world.

His reverie was short-lived. The first horsemen arrived at 4 a.m. to prep the Preakness field. They brushed, washed, taped, grazed and exercised the animals, all with their fingers crossed. Do the horses know what's up?

"He understands what's going on," Maurice Sanchez said of Hot Wells, a 25-1 shot owned by the head of Psychic Friends Network. Sanchez, an assistant trainer, came early to feed, bathe and walk Hot Wells before the mob arrived.

Like most horses, Hot Wells' feeding habits change on race day. His hay bag is removed at noon -- who can run on a full tummy? -- and grooming becomes a priority, especially at Triple Crown events.

"We'll give him a bubble bath and fix him up real attractive-like, hopefully for the picture [in the winner's circle] later on," Sanchez said.

Optimism runs high on Preakness morn.

Real Quiet got sudsed up at 5: 30, standing patiently as his groom, Jose Saul Mancilla, hosed down the Kentucky Derby winner, whistling while he worked. Even at that hour, Real Quiet's bath drew a sizable audience. "He's going to run big," said his trainer, Bob Baffert. "Look how happy he is."

A groom knelt beside Real Quiet, scraping dirt off the horse's feet and dousing them with talcum. "He's getting a foot massage," said assistant trainer Owen Harty, holding onto the colt. Not that he had to. A serene Real Quiet nuzzled Harty, caressed his shirt, nibbled his buttons.

Real Quiet, the eventual Preakness winner, left the bathing area, replaced by Hot Wells. Sanchez immediately spotted a puddle of talcum left behind. "Maybe I ought to scoop it up and throw it on my horse," he said.

By 6 a.m., the stakes barn was buzzing. Grooms. Hot-walkers. Reporters. Flies. Sparrows flitted from stall to stall, paying the horses no mind. Cats slipped under security ropes, stalking their prey. The track has its own life cycle.

Classic Cat, who would finish third, sidestepped one feline while returning to his stall from a light workout. "Just enough to give him a stretch, so he'll come home and settle down," said Mary Jo Lohmeier, his assistant trainer. "You don't want them bouncing off the walls.

"You hope the horses relax, while we [trainers] sit around all afternoon, bite our nails and get tied up in knots."

Most horsemen cope. Humor helps. Yesterday morning, a cadre of Preakness trainers kibitzed about the loss of Coronado's Quest, the talented-if-eccentric colt who was scratched Friday from the race. The Preakness losing Coronado's Quest, they said, was like Seinfeld losing Kramer.

Lohmeier chased pre-race butterflies by sizing up the competition. Again. Preakness morning is probably the best time to examine the field for a dark horse, she said.

"You watch as they all walk round and round the barn," Lohmeier said. "What you're looking for is that one animal who's acting real good, but whom nobody is talking about.

"In this case, of course, it's our horse."

Pub Date: 5/17/98

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