Surface tension: `Fu-Peg' strategy not well-grounded

May 21, 2000|By John Eisenberg

Neil Drysdale blamed the condition of the track, which was a lot easier than blaming the possibility that one workout between the Kentucky Derby and Preakness just wasn't enough or the fact that the horse had spent three days before the Preakness in virtual isolation, in a concrete barn on the east side of Pimlico.

"He couldn't handle the track. That's the way I saw it. That's the way Kent [Desormeaux, the jockey] saw it," said Drysdale, trainer of Fusaichi Pegasus, who finished a badly beaten second to Red Bullet as the biggest Preakness favorite in 21 years yesterday.

Maybe Drysdale, a Hall of Fame trainer, was right on target with his assessment. Maybe the upset was due to the slightly "off" track, moistened by two days of light rain and mist.

Or maybe something else was the problem.

Maybe it was the unusually light training regimen Drysdale had prescribed for the horse since before the Kentucky Derby. Maybe it was the brief stretch of hard time "Fu-Peg" endured before the race, stuck behind barricades and security guards in an isolated barn, without a blade of grass in sight.

Hey, maybe the colt just was bummed out that the wrong Hugh Hefner had showed up. (The horse, not the playboy.)

We'll never know for sure. We'll never know why Red Bullet pulled away in the stretch as if he, not Drysdale's horse, were the 1-5 favorite.

But this much we do know: Red Bullet was the better horse yesterday, and to everyone's surprise, he might be the better horse, period."There wasn't a lot of water on the track," said Jerry Bailey, the winning jockey. "[Pimlico officials] did a tremendous job. They pressed the water out of it."

Other jockeys and trainers tended to side with Drysdale more than Bailey, labeling the track "greasy" and "heavier than usual" and in other, generally queasy terms.

Still, it wasn't a wet track by any means. The horses weren't plodding through the slop out there.

And we're supposed to believe such a track was solely responsible for the eight-plus lengths Red Bullet gained on Fusaichi Pegasus compared with their previous race, the Wood Memorial, five weeks earlier?

Hmm."You know what? I wanted it to be a nice day and a fast track," said Joe Orseno, Red Bullet's trainer, who talked a big game all week and backed it up. "I wanted to win the race and not have [anyone have] any excuses."

His opinion of Drysdale's excuse? Orseno took the high road."Neil has a good horse, and if [the horse] didn't handle the track, he knows it," Orseno said.

Pause."But my horse ran a great race today."

Pause again."I don't know if it was the racetrack. We all had to run in it."

He stopped before saying something he would regret, especially if the horses end up meeting again in the Belmont Stakes in three weeks.

But this was the same trainer who, without specifically criticizing Drysdale, had voiced doubts last week about Fusaichi Pegasus' training regimen, which included a diet of canters and gallops before the Derby and just one, five-furlong workout between the Derby and Preakness.

The light schedule resulted in a brilliant Derby performance, no doubt, but "sooner or later," Orseno said one morning last week, "that lack of conditioning probably is going to catch up with you."

Maybe it caught up with Drysdale's horse yesterday.

No, it probably wasn't the time spent in isolation, farther removed from the press and public than a finicky diva. Drysdale's tactics were the talk of the week at Pimlico and certainly didn't help publicize the sport, which needs all the publicity it can get, but it's hard to see how hiding the horse kept him from firing in the stretch yesterday."The stage was set perfectly at the three-eighths pole," Desormeaux said. "We were together all the way up the backside and head-to-head [in the stretch]."

Then, as expected, one horse took off and left the rest of the field in his wake. Only it was the wrong horse.

Or was it?

Orseno had insisted all week that his horse's loss to "Fu-Peg" in the Wood was an illusion, that a poor ride by jockey Alex Solis had ruined Red Bullet's chances."Alex moved way too soon that day," Orseno said. "We had no horse left for the stretch run."

Substituting Bailey, maybe the industry's best jockey, figured to level the playing field, Orseno said.

"I think we'll be right there," Orseno said. "The way I calculate it, the poor ride [by Solis] cost us four lengths, and we lost [the Wood] by four lengths. With a good ride [in the Preakness], we should be right there at the end."

It sounded cocky, but it turned out his estimate was conservative. Red Bullet was "there" at the end and "Fu-Peg" wasn't."We just had the better horse," Bailey said.

Maybe it was the track, maybe it wasn't. (Drysdale said earlier in the week that an off track "wouldn't be a problem.") Maybe it was the training, maybe it wasn't. We'll never know for sure.

"He's still a very talented horse, I'd like to reiterate that," Drysdale said of his colt.

That's probably true, but he's not the "superhorse" he was labeled after the Derby. A "superhorse" wins, regardless of the track's condition, the barn's quality or the training regimen.

A "superhorse" doesn't need excuses.

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