Will `Pegasus' sprint free after idling in lockdown?

May 19, 2000|By John Eisenberg

The thousands of racing fans who will put their Preakness money on Fusaichi Pegasus tomorrow can only hope the horse is more relaxed than his trainer, Neil Drysdale, who is setting a new standard for caution in the days leading up to the race.

Drysdale, recently voted into racing's Hall of Fame, is a terrific horseman whose record renders his methods and decision-making basically unassailable. And he was jovial for the most part yesterday when meeting with reporters and putting his horse through an early-morning canter on the track and a schooling session in the paddock in the afternoon.

Still, the levels of security, privacy and isolation he has mandated for his talented horse fall somewhere between excessive and almost enough to make you wonder if he has something to hide.

"He's a character who likes to check out everything, and I just want him in a nice, quiet environment," Drysdale said yesterday.

That's fine, but reporters and photographers had easier access to Mary McAleese, the president of the Republic of Ireland, when McAleese toured Baltimore earlier this week.

When Pimlico security officials suggested putting up barricades to limit views of the horse, Drysdale had them put the barricades even farther away. Then he bathed the horse inside the barn yesterday, completely out of sight.

No looking!

It probably won't amount to a bucket of hay in the end. What happens in the race is all that matters, and if "Fu-Peg" runs even nearly as well as he did in winning the Kentucky Derby 13days ago, he could hang out all week in the food court at Towson Town Center and still go out and win the Preakness.

But that's what makes Drysdale's extreme caution all the more curious.

His horse did exhibit an occasionally excitable personality before the Derby, balking at the starting gate of the Wood Memorial and throwing his exercise rider at Churchill Downs. But the colt had no more security or privacy than any of the 18 other horses in the Derby field, and he never fretted over cameras or crowds. Then he was a perfect gentleman before, during and after his winning performance.

"He might be maturing out of" his youthful playfulness, rival trainer D. Wayne Lukas suggested earlier this week.

So why turn him into an equine Greta Garbo now?

That question was the talk of the grounds at Pimlico yesterday.

Fusaichi Pegasus spent most of the day out of sight and behind several layers of barricades, in his stall in Barn 7 on the track's west side, far from the other Preakness horses stabled together in the stakes barn on the east side.

Stabling on the opposite side of the track, away from the Preakness crowds, isn't unusual; trainer Elliott Walden did it two years ago with Victory Gallop.

But yesterday, security guards discouraged access to the entire west-side barn area in the morning and demanded to escort reporters who just wanted to look at the barn. In the afternoon, all access was denied.

"We're just trying to accommodate the man," one security guard said of Drysdale. "He doesn't want people around."

Think of it as the racing cousin of Cal Ripken's habit of staying in a separate hotel, away from the rest of the Orioles.

A detriment to winning? Maybe, maybe not. A superstar power move? Absolutely.

But just as it's hard to blame the Orioles, who can't tell Ripken what to do at this point in his career, it's hard to blame Maryland Jockey Club officials for wanting to please Drysdale, whose horse is the centerpiece of this year's race.

Tracks generally try to oblige any trainer with a special request, especially before a big race. Former Pimlico general manager Chick Lang yesterday recalled having to order a hole drilled in a stall one year to let a Preakness horse gaze contentedly into the next stall at a "traveling companion" whose presence soothed him.

Another time, Lang said, officials ran out and bought a new mattress and hung it up in a stall to keep a rowdy horse from injuring himself.

But no one in local racing circles remembers a case this extreme before the Preakness.

Not that Drysdale's request for isolation has landed his horse in palatial surroundings. The stalls in the west-side barns are asphalt enclosures with macadam floors, as opposed to the softer, dirt floors in the stakes barn. Ambulances headed to nearby Sinai Hospital come blazing down the street every few minutes. There's no place for a horse to graze. Not a blade of grass in sight.

If Fusaichi Pegasus runs poorly tomorrow, he should be tested for clinical depression after spending the days before the race in such circumstances.

But Drysdale insisted yesterday that he was happy with his decision to keep the horse out of the Preakness mainstream.

If any trainer other than one with Drysdale's impeccable credentials were in charge, there'd be a torrent of criticism and concern that the trainer was, to borrow a baseball phrase, over-managing.

Drysdale gets a pass, having guided his talented horse to a Derby win and, now, a shot at making history.

Still, he's obviously not relaxed in the spotlight. He wants to train his horse and win the race, period. The rest of the process, well, he could do without that pressure.

Ensconced in his stall, behind all that security, Fusaichi Pegasus might not sense that.

But what if he does?

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