Putting horse before the race raises Preakness suspense

May 09, 2000|By John Eisenberg

Those who thought the Triple Crown season would lack suspense this year had better think again.

True, Kentucky Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus might be so superior to the rest of the 3-year-old crop as to render the Preakness and Belmont mere formalities.

But what if he doesn't run?

What if his trainer, Neil Drysdale, chooses not to run the colt at Pimlico because of some hiccup in his training in the next 10 days? It's a nightmarish vision for Maryland Jockey Club president Joe DeFrancis, who runs the Preakness, but anyone who knows the inscrutable, conservative Drysdale knows that, if anything, he isn't bluffing when he says it's just "a possibility," not a certainty, that the horse will run.

This is a trainer who scratched the probable winner of the 1992 Kentucky Derby on the morning of the race because of a foot ailment, so you know he isn't afraid of suffering the consequences of putting his horse's health above all else.

It's 11 days and counting until the Preakness, and though everyone in racing might want to pretend this isn't happening, there's no guarantee Drysdale will run Fusaichi Pegasus at Pimlico until the colt is loaded in the starting gate.

Let the agonizing wait begin.

"I'm going to be sleeping lightly between now and May20," DeFrancis joked yesterday.

Drysdale probably will work the horse twice at Churchill Downs - the first time later this week - before deciding whether to come to Baltimore. DeFrancis and other Triple Crown officials might resort to praying for uneventful works and general good health.

"Let's just keep everyone with the flu away from the horse," DeFrancis said.

"Let's put [the horse] in a sterile environment. Make him `the horse in the plastic bubble.'"

Not that Drysdale is against running or looking for a way out. What horseman wouldn't love to take a shot at winning a Triple Crown?

"I'm confident, if the horse is healthy and there are no problems, that Neil will come," DeFrancis said.

The pressure is enormous. Almost literally, the weight of the entire industry is on Drysdale.

Racing has spent years looking under rocks for attention-getting superstars, finding far fewer than it needs. Now, here's a horse who resembled the real deal in blowing away 18 competitors in the Derby.

"He could be the best horse to look through a bridle since Spectacular Bid," DeFrancis said.

A Triple Crown triumph by such a horse might get racing on the cover of Sports Illustrated for the first time in years, adding to the momentum stirred by a new, $51.5million Triple Crown TV contract and the unifying presence of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association.

Having to scotch the idea without seeing the horse even take a shot would be the ultimate downer.

Oh, sure, the Preakness has survived the loss of the Derby winner before, and it surely would again. Grindstone was injured and unable to run in1996. Elevenyears earlier, Spend A Buck's owner, Robert Brennan, chased a big bonus in the Jersey Derby instead of chasing a Triple Crown. The Preakness survived.

Let's face it, the event is still a party more than a horse race to many fans, and the gonzos in the infield don't even know if they're betting on horses or elephants by late in the afternoon, anyway.

Still, losing Fusaichi Pegasus after such a fine Derby win would effectively gut the 125th Preakness of substance. That would be a profound disappointment.

"The Preakness will always go on," DeFrancis said, "but with the 125th anniversary and the possibility of such a great horse, there's a chance for a really special event. Stars aren't aligned like that too often."

Trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who won the Preakness a year ago with Charismatic, scoffed at the idea of Drysdale's pulling out.

"Count Neil in," Lukas said almost disdainfully Sunday

But remember, Lukas is much more aggressive than Drysdale about entering horses in races. Lukas has brought three Derby winners to the Preakness without waffling an instant.

"I have the utmost respect for Wayne, but most people would tell you that he and Neil are at the opposite ends of the spectrum," DeFrancis said.

Lukas also is that rare horse trainer with a larger world view. He understands what's good and bad for racing, and he actually cares.

Drysdale only cares about his horse, period. He's so old school, if he were a football fullback, he'd sport a crew cut and high-top cleats. He neither seeks media attention nor bathes in it, and he doesn't go around giving positive-thinking speeches or offering his opinion on everything from the stock market to the NBA playoffs.

"No touchy-feely questions, please," he told reporters before the Derby last week.

In the wake of his greatest triumph, he quickly bolted from a track-sponsored celebration to get back to the barn and Fusaichi Pegasus last Saturday night.

He isn't going to be swayed by any factor other than what's right for the horse.

He had the nation's best 3-year-old by a furlong in1992, but he scratched A.P. Indy within hours of the Kentucky Derby when the colt turned up lame.

If anything goes even a little bit wrong before the Preakness, he won't hesitate to scratch his horse again, even with a chance to make history.

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