By BETH HARRIS
AP Racing Writer
BALTIMORE (AP) - Strange things always seem to happen at the
Preakness. A drunken fan runs onto the track and punches at
speeding horses. Barbaro breaks down in 2006. A race day power
outage costs Pimlico millions of dollars.
It's enough to make everyone hold their collective breath when
the gates open Saturday for Big Brown's attempt at winning the
second leg of the Triple Crown.
"I hope everything goes good. I hope everybody comes back
good," trainer Nick Zito said Wednesday. "That's what everybody
wants, for the horses to come back safe. Unfortunately, these big
races have been under the microscope."
Two weeks ago, Big Brown cruised to an easy victory in the
Kentucky Derby, finishing 4¾ lengths ahead of the filly Eight
She crossed the finish line and was galloping out toward the
backstretch when she suddenly collapsed, breaking both front
ankles. Eight Belles was euthanized by injection on the track,
stunning more than 157,000 fans in the stands and millions watching
Her gallant effort and tragic death will undoubtedly cast a
shadow over the Preakness, where Barbaro broke down early in the
2006 race and was euthanized eight months later after a long battle
"The issue with Eight Belles is going to come up over and over
this week," said Zito, who will saddle Stevil in the Preakness.
Now in its 133rd running, a year younger than the venerable
Kentucky Derby, the Preakness attracts about 100,000 people and
generates most of Maryland racing's yearly funding.
So providing a safe dirt racing surface and letting the horses
do the talking through their performances is Pimlico's goal
Saturday, one of the sport's four major days that attract a
"Safety is always first," said Glen Kozak, who oversees
maintenance of Pimlico's dirt and turf tracks. "The condition of
the racetrack for that day is very, very important. You never know
what can happen that day."
In 1999, a drunken fan burst out of the infield and onto the
track several hundred yards from the finish line of a race on the
Preakness undercard. Horses charged by on both sides of the man
without hitting him. He punched at two horses as they galloped past
him, forcing jockey Jorge Chavez to pull up wagering favorite
Money was refunded to fans who bet on Artax; the fan avoided
jail time but was given a suspended sentence and probation.
"The Preakness is known as the party race of the Triple Crown
races," said jockey Jeremy Rose, who won in 2005 with Afleet Alex
and will ride Icabad Crane on Saturday. "That's why a lot of that
stuff happens. But most of it is just coincidental."
At the 1998 Preakness, a fire in a transformer near the track
triggered a power outage that shut down betting windows about 90
minutes before the big race, costing Pimlico nearly $2 million.
In 2005, Afleet Alex and Rose were cut off by Scrappy T in the
stretch turn. The horses clipped heels in a frightening collision
and Afleet Alex was forced nearly to his knees, drawing a
collective gasp from the crowd. Incredibly, he regained his
footing, tragedy was averted and Afleet Alex went on to victory.
"I just figured we were going down and that's all there was to
it," Rose recalled. "Then he happened to pop up underneath me and
he ended up pulling away from the best 3-year-olds they could put
together. It was a testament to how good he was."
The following year, Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro broke down
after leaving the starting gate in full view of the grandstand,
where shocked fans wept at the sight of him struggling to stay off
his shattered right hind leg.
Kozak was one of the first track workers to reach Barbaro and
jockey Edgar Prado.
"We take a lot of pride in how that was handled and what we
were able to do with that horse and to get him up to New Bolton
(clinic)," Kozak said. "That's one of the freak accidents. None
of the other horses in that race or that day had any issues."
Last year, a horse broke his right front leg while leading in a
turf race and was euthanized on the track, shocking fans awaiting
the start of the Preakness.
Kozak and his crew were busy Wednesday preparing the dirt track
for three consecutive days of racing that begin Thursday. The
37-year-old superintendent, readying for his fourth Preakness, has
brought in a third horse ambulance for Pimlico's biggest day. It
features a hydraulic lift that makes it easier to load an injured
horse instead of making the animal go up a ramp or a step.
"We have a very good reputation for how safe a racetrack this
is and our numbers prove that. Maryland has always been known for a
very good surface," Kozak said. "Whether it's the Preakness, the
Pimlico Special or one of the cheaper races, it's a consistent
Tractors harrow the 70-foot wide dirt surface - composed of
sand, silt and clay - to maintain a uniform depth. Then a
rubber-tired roller with weights on it goes over the dirt three
times to pack down the surface and keep water from penetrating it
in what is known as sealing the track. Dirt tracks drain
horizontally, with water spilling off the inside and outside. The
newer synthetic tracks drain vertically.
Between now and Saturday, Kozak consults a meteorologist and
watches TV forecasts.
"I pay more attention to The Weather Channel than I do to my
family at this point," he said. "Mother Nature, it can hurt you
or help you."
Pimlico's one-mile oval with its tight turns has a reputation
for favoring speed horses that go to the lead.
"The track doesn't get souped up for a big day," Kozak said.
"The best thing is to keep the track consistent and that's what we
strive to do."
Rick Dutrow Jr., who trains Big Brown and started his career at
Maryland's tracks, has criticized Pimlico's surface.
"The track's been too hard at Pimlico forever. It's so hard and
fast all the time it usually favors speed," he said. "It looks
like it's going to favor our horse, but I would much rather be
running on a safe, fast, dry track. I hope that they don't have it
packed down where they're hoping for a track record. It's stupid."
Kozak hates hearing those kind of comments, even though his job
is subject to constant second-guessing.
"It's just like football players playing on Astroturf or
natural fields. Every trainer has their own idea," he said. "You
can't get swayed by a trainer's criticism or comment on a
racetrack, you just have to keep it consistent."
He noted that trainers often blame the track surface when
perhaps other factors were responsible for a poor performance or a
breakdown, such as training methods, a horse's nutrition, breeding
and breaking as a yearling or its age when it began racing.
"It doesn't always go back to the racetrack (surface)," Kozak
Zito won the 1996 Preakness with Louis Quatorze and is a
proponent of dirt over synthetic surfaces, which have mitigated
breakdowns but caused bone, soft tissue and hind-end injuries.
"I broke the track record here one day with Louis Quatorze, so
it's OK," he said about Pimlico's surface. "No problems. They've
got a good superintendent here."
Kozak jokes that there's no manual to consult on how a racing
strip should be. He watches the time of races, the horses running
over it and their morning workouts.
"If horses are winning from different locations on the track,
whether they're on the front end or coming off the pace, and the
horses are coming back from the race OK, you know you've done a
good job," he said.
AP Sports Writer Dan Gelston, AP Sports Writer Will Graves in
Louisville, Ky., and AP freelance writer Mike Farrell contributed
to this report.
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)