It rained on horse racing's parade here Friday. That's been happening a lot.
This time, it was OK.
This was Black-Eyed Susan Day, the day before the Preakness Stakes and the day of the prestigious 3-year-old filly race of the same name. Dreary skies and a drenched track weren't as crucial as they would be Saturday, when network TV cameras turn on and the viewing public gets yet another look at a sport in turmoil.
Or, in the case of this year's Preakness, a sport showcasing a setup.
It has a star, Kentucky Derby winner Big Brown. And, if all that has been discussed in the week leading up to this middle leg of racing's Triple Crown is to believed, the horse that is a running advertisement for brown trucks and drivers in brown shorts will easily deliver just what racing needs.
Currently resonating with that portion of the public that watches only the Kentucky Derby and maybe the other two Triple Crown races &
and still has little idea what the Breeders' Cup is or means &
is the image of the filly Eight Belles breaking down after finishing second in the Derby and being euthanized on the track.
If they missed that, they saw Barbaro go down in the 2006 Preakness, or George Washington do the same in last year's Breeders' Cup Classic.
So Saturday is racing's time to do like pro athletes after their usual court acquittals for various felonies. They need to put it all behind them.
Big Brown is the perfect answer. It is assumed he will win. The Derby winner almost always comes to the Preakness with a swagger, but seldom has a horse been considered this big a lock. This afternoon, Big Brown's odds to win were 1-9, meaning you had to bet $9 to get back $10.
His trainer, Dick Dutrow Jr., who has a pretty nice swagger of his own, was asked if the Preakness would be a rollover similar to the Derby.
"Yes," he said, leaving a long pause for effect.
"Stop talking. Just go to the window."
The forecast is for the rain to clear Friday afternoon, meaning that the starting field for Saturday's Preakness will not become the dirty dozen. But if you listen to connections for the other 11 going against Big Brown, there is little chance that any of these meek will inherit the earth.
Said Paddy Gallagher, trainer of Yankee Bravo: "Looks like it's gonna be Big Brown's party."
Said the veteran Nick Zito, trainer of Stevil, who is entering the Preakness for the 19th time and has won four Triple Crown races, including the 1996 Preakness with Louis Quatorze: "You've got to salute Big Brown."
Dutrow was asked, considering the overwhelming odds that favor his horse, why anybody else would even bother to enter. "It's not a bad thing to finish second or third in the Preakness," he said.
Kent Desormeaux, who rode Big Brown to victory in the Derby and will be up for the Preakness, said, "I know the gun is loaded. I just gotta pull the trigger."
The only voice of dissent, trainer Reade Baker of long shot Kentucky Bear, found himself in plenty of headlines at midweek when he had the audacity to question Big Brown's deity. "He beat all those horses at Churchill Downs," Baker said, "but he didn't beat us."
Still, in the view of most, they can just load Big Brown into the van now and head for New York and the June 7 Belmont, where he can complete the first Triple Crown in racing since Affirmed in 1978.
Racing wants that, desperately needs it. Talk of that negates talk of breeding fragile thoroughbreds; of drugging them so they can run sore; of grotesquely dangling limbs, or even of vets with needles behind big screens.
"A Triple Crown is great for the sport, great for the game," Dutrow said. "I can also tell you, it would move up my game a lot."
Dutrow's game has been, in the past, somewhat questionable, something else racing would like to put behind it so that all eyes can focus on a Triple Crown champion.
According to the database of the Association of Racing Commissioners International, Dutrow has been fined repeatedly since 2000 for various doping situations. In '03, one of his horses tested positive for Mepivacaine, a drug that dangerously deadens pain and deprives both horse and trainer of a warning of impending serious injury.
Dutrow has served several suspensions from racing, ranging from 14 to 60 days.
Interestingly, he is outspoken about his past, which also includes putting illegal drugs in his own body, as well as allegedly into horses. "Things happened," he said. "It doesn't bother me, talking about it."
He embellishes his own image as a kid who hung out around the racetrack, while his father, Dick Sr., made a career of training lots of winning horses in Maryland. The Preakness is a homecoming for Dutrow Jr., who was asked to describe the most outrageous thing he saw in the infield at the Preakness in his years as one of the crowd.
"I couldn't tell you," he said, "because I was probably the one doing it."
Still, despite Dutrow's candid responses and general charm, the fact remains that the last three Triple Crown races might deserve asterisks. Last year's Preakness was won by Curlin, trained by Steve Asmussen, who served a six-month suspension in late '06 for use of Mepivacaine. Curlin was beaten in a great race in the Belmont by a filly, Rags to Riches, trained by Todd Pletcher, who had finished his 45-day suspension for Mepivacaine four months earlier.
And then Dutrow won the Derby.
All three have denied any connection to that drug and all three appealed.
The reaction to that by Rick Arthur, equine medical director for the California Horse Racing Board, was: "Yes, and all three lost."
That notwithstanding, it remains a desperate wish of racing that Big Brown will stand in the winner's circle at Pimlico on Saturday. Same for Belmont three weeks hence.
If all that happens, along with a successful Breeders Cup in Los Angeles in the fall, the clouds might finally start parting for a sport that is tired of a sloppy track.
Big Brown, tragedy and history