You all said the Derby memories column wasn’t too long, so wait until you read this one.
After sharing my Kentucky Derby memories I figured I might as well keep going and complete the Triple Crown, starting, of course, with the Preakness Stakes, which most members of the media will tell you is the most fun of the three to cover. But with the fun have come some of the most heartbreaking and touching moments I have experienced.
One thing about the Preakness, it is rarely dull. A good deal of wild and wacky events have taken place on the third Saturday in May, and considering the story behind the horse for whom the Preakness was named, it shouldn’t come as a surprise.
To start off with a brief history lesson, picture a group of sportsmen attending a dinner party in Saratoga in 1868 and deciding to form a new stakes race. Talk about putting the cart before the horse, it was decided, at the suggestion of Maryland governor Oden Bowie, to stage the event in Baltimore, even though there was no racetrack in Baltimore. Bowie promised, however, that one would be built in time for the race, which was scheduled for 1870.
The track was built and the race, named the Dinner Party Stakes, went off as scheduled at the new Pimlico Race Course. The first running was won by a big, coarse-looking colt named Preakness, who was named after a small town in New Jersey. Years later after being sent to England to compete in Cup races, Preakness was purchased by the Duke of Hamilton for stud purposes.
Unfortunately for Preakness, he developed a bad temper that was equaled only by that of his owner’s. One day, Preakness and the Duke had it out in Preakness’s stall, with the Duke coming out on the short end. In a fit of anger, the Duke went into his house, grabbed his gun, and came back and shot and killed Preakness. The incident enraged other English sportsmen, and the furor that resulted in Europe and America triggered a wave of reform, prompting laws and restrictions for the protection of animals. So, when you see incidents like NFL quarterback Michael Vick being sent to prison for mistreating dogs, you can thank Preakness for putting in motion the laws that still exist today.
My first visit to Pimlico for the Preakness came in 1973. I was the head librarian at Daily Racing Form at the time and Joe Hirsch arranged for me to get credentials. Now I’m not saying that Joe was relatively unfamiliar with who I was, but when I picked up my press badge, it read Steve Cannon. I’ve been kind of attached to that name ever since.
Haskin or Cannon, here I was standing in the grassy saddling area within touching distance of Secretariat, as Lucien Laurin, decked out in a loud burgundy sport jacket and blue pants, put the saddle on Big Red on the opposite side. In fact, I was the only one standing on the horse’s right side. Laurin put on the blinkers and as he spoke to jockey Ron Turcotte I lifted my trusty Canon FTB and took a photo of Secretariat standing in perfect conformation, looking straight ahead. When Secretariat heard the click of my camera, he turned his head and, through his blinkers, he looked right at me, or I should say through me. I have posted that photo on my blog on several occasions. I then turned around and there walking directly behind me, was Sham, his dark bay coat shining like burnished copper. To this day, I have never been that close up to two horses of such rare beauty.
I wound up watching the Preakness from the roof and got a wonderful bird’s eye view of Secretariat’s spectacular move from last to first on the clubhouse turn; the only time I had ever seen a horse make that kind of a move. Jockey George Cusimano, on the pace-setting Ecole Etage, said afterward that Secretariat sounded like a freight train when he went by him and he was moving with such force he blew the number right off his arm.
Back then, I worked on Saturday, so it wasn’t until 1979 that I got to go to my next Preakness, and that was because my wife to be and I had been hired by the Thoroughbred Record to photograph the race. I shot the race from the photographer’s stand in the infield, while Joan shot from the outside rail. Some of the photos I took of Spectacular Bid on the track and in the barn were priceless, and I’ve posted some of those on my blog as well.
I began covering the Preakness live for the Thoroughbred Times in 1987, writing sidebar features. I had been offered a permanent job as managing editor by Mark Simon, who helped found the publication, but was unable and unwilling to move to Kentucky, since Joan’s parents had just moved to New Jersey from Connecticut to be near their 3-year-old granddaughter. Mark wound up hiring Ray Paulick, an editor at the DRF’s Los Angeles office, and the three of us became good friends during the years I wrote freelance for the publication.
I will miss the controversies surrounding the Preakness, such as the heated verbal battle in 1988, when Kentucky Derby winner Winning Colors, with Gary Stevens aboard, was carried wide by Pat Day on Derby runner-up Forty Niner, who appeared to herd Winning Colors out to the middle of the track on the first turn and kept her about six paths off the rail all the way down the backstretch. As it turned out, Risen Star snuck up along the inside to take the lead at the head of the stretch, while Winning Colors ran gamely to finish third and Forty Niner faded badly to finish seventh. When I saw Winning Colors’ trainer Wayne Lukas back at the barn, he seemed to take the defeat in stride and made no mention of the trip his filly had.
But then Stevens showed up and ignited the firestorm that was to ensue by blaming Forty Niner’s trainer, Hall of Famer Woody Stephens, for instructing Day to basically make life miserable for his filly.
“Jealousy is a powerful thing and it cost that man more than it cost us,” Stevens said. “When Stephens was informed about the remarks, he retaliated, “He’s a young stupid boy to say what he did. If he had ridden a smart race he would have won. If I was training the filly he wouldn’t be riding her back.”
Then Winning Colors’ owner Eugene Klein jumped into the fray and added fuel to the fire by saying of Stephens, “His reputation is very severely damaged. He went from a Hall of Fame trainer to a Hall of Shame trainer.”
Stephens, of course, fired back. “I was in the Hall of Fame eight years before he knew what a horse was,” he said. “Now they call him Cryin’ Klein.”
Ah, the Preakness, you had to love it.
I remember the morning in 1989 when Charlie Whittingham announced about six days before the Preakness that Kentucky Derby winner Sunday Silence had suffered a foot bruise, and if he was unable to work in the next two days he would have to be withdrawn from the race. The next morning, noted veterinarian Dr. Alex Harthill, who had been flown to Baltimore from Kentucky, went into Sunday Silence’s stall and closed the top half of the stall door. Behind closed doors, he worked on Sunday Silence for a while, then finally exited the stall and returned to Kentucky. I can’t remember if it was the next morning or two days later, but Sunday Silence went out and turned in a brilliant workout as if nothing was wrong. The rest as they say is history.
I am going to miss so many things about Baltimore and the Preakness, including our annual dinner with Joe Hirsch at The Prime Rib, as well as our crab fests at Captain Harvey’s for members of the media, where an invitation from Joe made you feel special. I admit it was quite a sight watching Joe smashing a crab with a wooden hammer. You never knew how many were going to show up to a Joe Hirsch dinner, but you could always count on New York Times writer Joe Durso, who was Joe’s closest friend and in later years drove him everywhere. Durso was a super nice guy, except when it came to his dinner and dealing with waiters. He had specific instructions about every aspect of his dinner and everything had to be exactly as instructed.
One time, my buddy from the New York Post, Ed Fountaine, and I drove to the Prime Rib to meet the two Joes, and kidded on the way about Durso’s dining quirks. We all ordered the crab meat cocktail, and there on Durso’s plate, nestled in a bed of lettuce, was a book of matches. I saw it first and signaled to Ed, and we both waited for the inevitable scene that was to follow. Sure enough, when Durso spotted it, his mouth fell open and he summoned the waiter, who was a young guy, obviously just starting out.
“What is this?” Joe demanded to know as he pointed to the book of matches. “I want to know where this came from?” The waiter sheepishly picked up the book of matches, looked at for a few seconds, and replied quizzically, “Giuseppe’s?” I have to admit, Ed and I lost it.
“Giuseppe’s” is one of my two favorite lines delivered during Preakness week. The other was from Bob Baffert, who came out to the gap one morning to see his horse train and was not looking too good. As Bob described his malady: “At around 2 a.m. I think I gave birth to a crab cake.”
As mentioned, there were plenty of fun times and plenty of crazy times, such as the power failure in 1998 when the whole track lost electricity and people, unable to bet or do much of anything else, had to grope their way in the dark up and down the stairs in 90-plus degree temperatures. Then the following year, some drunken lunatic in the infield jumped over the rail as the horses were coming down the stretch of the Maryland Breeders’ Cup Handicap and threw a punch at the favorite, Artax, who bolted out of the way, eventually finishing fifth. The guy, remarkably, was uninjured thanks to some good horsemanship by the jockeys as they swerved their horses to avoid him.
But with all the fun and craziness came the heartbreaks, the most memorable being the injury to Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro. I remember watching the race on the big screen from the grass outside the winner’s circle with Sports Illustrated writer Tim Layden. As the field headed into the backstretch, we both said simultaneously, “Where’s Barbaro?” He was nowhere to be found on the screen. I turned around, and there behind us, just past the finish line, was Barbaro, having been pulled up and in apparent distress. There was a lump in my throat and it was very difficult having to go back to following the race.
When it was over, we ran over to Barbaro, as the ambulance arrived. It was an eerie feeling standing there, trying to split my mind between this horrific sight and Bernardini’s magnificent victory. Just seconds before, Barbaro was running free, with adrenaline pumping through his body. All was as it should have been. Then came a sensation he had never felt before. His right hind leg, which had helped propel him to victory after victory, suddenly became lifeless, shattered by three fractures that crushed his pastern into 20 fragments of bone.
The cheers that had been reserved for Barbaro on this day were replaced by shrieks and pleas not to euthanize the horse, which seemed a possibility after a screen was placed in front of the colt, shielding him from the crowd.
“No! No! No!” one woman by the rail screeched in utter despair at the sight of the screen being put up. “Do not put that horse down! Don't you dare put him down. I'll buy him for a dollar.”
Shouts of “take him home” and “get him on the van” also were heard from the frantic fans who were witness to the gut-wrenching images directly in front of them. Many wept uncontrollably as the once-mighty Barbaro was attended to by track veterinarians, who placed a Kimzey splint on the right hind leg.
Finally, after what seemed an eternity, the screen was removed and trainer Michael Matz helped open the door of the ambulance. As Barbaro was led on, a round of applause erupted from the stands.
Darrell Haire of the Jockeys’ Guild rushed onto the track to console a distraught Edgar Prado, who was bent over in anguish.
Barbaro's owners, Roy and Gretchen Jackson, headed back to the barn to see their horse. “You don't expect something like this,” Gretchen said. “Being beaten, yes, but not this. If you followed this horse you had to love him.”
That was all she had to say. “Excuse me,” she said almost apologetically. “I have some phone calls I need to make, because I have a family that's waiting to figure out what to do.”
As the large gathering of media searched for any information they could find, a solitary figure leaned against a fence by the loading ramp, staring off into space. Matz’ daughter, Michelle, who worked as an exercise rider for her father, had just a short while earlier been brimming with confidence that Barbaro would put on a show similar to the one in the Kentucky Derby.
“He was a great horse anyway,” she said. When asked why she used the past tense, she shook her head slightly and replied, “It's not good. They’re going to try to save him, but I don’t know. This horse has always been such a professional. When he walked out of the barn today I looked at him and I knew he was going to kick butt. Peter (assistant trainer Brette) told me, ‘He’s unbeatable, Michelle.’ It’s so hard because he loves to run.”
Just then, Michelle saw Prado heading toward the barn and ran after him. The two hugged, burying their heads in each other's shoulder. “I’m sorry,” Prado said. “It’s not your fault,” she replied.
A noticeably shaken D.D, Matz, wife of the trainer, walked to her car and stopped briefly to provide information. “He’s handling it like the true champion he is,” she said. “He’s going to the best place possible, with the best surgeons, so he’ll get the best care he can.”
Her emotions then caught up with her and she was unable to continue. “I really don't want to talk about this,” she said. “I’m not going to discuss it. I’m sorry.”
Barbaro eventually was placed on a van, and as it departed Pimlico with a police escort for the hour-and-45-minute drive to the New Bolton Medical Center in Kennett Square, Pa., people wandered about with emotionless faces, some still showing the signs of recently shed tears.
The horrific injury suffered by Barbaro in the Preakness was the tragedy of Thoroughbred racing. Bernardini’s spectacular victory was the triumph, and one that deserved to be played out in front of cheering, appreciative fans instead of a grief-stricken crowd jolted into stunned silence. The two faces of racing formed one conflicting picture, as Bernardini, 5 1/4 lengths ahead of his closest pursuer, charged past a stricken Barbaro.
As night fell, at the darkened end of the barn, Barbaro’s hotwalker, Ricardo Orozco, prepared to return to Fair Hill along with groom Eduardo Hernandez. It would be a long trip home. The equipment was packed, and soon all evidence that Barbaro had been there would be gone.
Stall 40, which traditionally is home to the Kentucky Derby winner, is empty some 50 weeks out of the year. But never this empty.
Then there was the scene that played out after the 2007 Preakness. Trainer Helen Pitts had been the trainer of Curlin, developing him and saddling him to break his maiden in spectacular fashion before the colt was purchased by a group headed by Jess Jackson and turned over to Steve Asmussen. It was a crushing blow to Pitts and her assistant Hanne Jorgensen, who “cried her eyes out” after he was sold.
Now, here was Pitts at Pimlico to saddle Einstein in the co-featured Dixie Stakes, stabled in the same barn as Curlin. If that wasn’t tough enough, Einstein, second choice at 5-2, moved up to challenge down the backstretch when a horse went down in front of him, causing Einstein to stumble so badly he unseated jockey Robby Albarado, who was also Curlin’s rider. Pitts had to watch Einstein run loose the rest of the way, not knowing what kind of damage he might have done or would do. The colt returned with a grabbed quarter, but thankfully it was nothing worse than that.
But Pitts’ emotionally draining day wasn’t over yet. She then retreated to the hospitality tent at the end of the stakes barn and watched Curlin win the Preakness in dramatic fashion. Although she wanted only the best for the horse, having to suffer the anguish of Einstein’s misfortune and then see her horse of a lifetime win a classic for someone else had to tug hard at her emotions. As soon as Curlin won I headed back to the barn to find Pitts and get her reaction.
“I have mixed feelings,” she said, trying hard to say all the right things, but it was obvious she was struggling to deal with her feelings, as well as the trauma of the Dixie.
“I really don’t want to say anything,” she added. “I’m just happy for Steve and Scott (assistant Scott Blasi). Horses like this are hard to come by, and I feel honored to have been part of him at some point. But what can you do? It’s hard.”
Of course I will remember my wife and daughter taking the train down to Baltimore in 2003 to see me presented with the Old Hilltop Award for career achievement. And on a wet, cold, and downright miserable Preakness day, starving for any kind of food, we walked to the convenience store a block from the track and then sat in the car in the parking lot stuffing ourselves with junk food with the heat on full blast. My poor wife and daughter then had to make their way to the saddling area from the backstretch freezing, with their high heels sinking into the grass.
I am going to miss some of the inspiring moments the Preakness provided, like meeting John Silvertand, the breeder of Afleet Alex after he had watched Alex make the most remarkable recovery anyone had ever seen, nearly going down when Scrappy T. ducked right in his path at the quarter pole, only to pick himself up off the ground, switch leads as if nothing had happened, and draw off to an easy victory. The near tragedy would be shown on TV stations all over the country, making Afleet Alex an overnight national celebrity.
With all the connections of Afleet Alex being interviewed in an infield tent behind the winner's circle, a rainbow appeared to add to the ethereal flavor of the moment. One of the few to see it was Silvertand, who had become a major part of the Afleet Alex fairy tale.
Afleet Alex's dam, Maggy Hawk, was unable to produce milk, and therefore could not provide her foal with colostrum, the antibody-rich fluid that helps prevent disease outside the womb. Because a foal has only a 10% chance of surviving without colostrum, a nurse mare had to be found for the son of Northern Afleet. During the 12 days it took to obtain one, Silvertand's then 9-year-old daughter, Lauren, fed the foal milk every day out of a Coors Lite bottle. A photo of Lauren feeding Alex eventually made its way onto the colt’s website and into other publications.
Approximately two years before the Preakness, Silvertand was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given only a couple of months to live. As Afleet Alex's career progressed, Silvertand decided to discontinue chemotherapy and leave it “in God’s hands” in order to fully enjoy the experience.
As the colt’s fame grew, so did the story of Lauren. Before the Kentucky Derby, Silvertand and his wife, Carolyn, were contacted by Nevada governor Kenny Guinn and First Lady Dema Guinn, who said they were starting a cancer fund campaign and wanted to use the Silvertands’ photo of Lauren feeding the colt to help bolster it.
Now Silvertand stood, away from all the excitement of the Preakness' post-race celebration. “I've got the shakes,” he said. “The way he picked himself up and came back on was just fabulous.”
Silvertand had traveled to Baltimore the day before the Preakness by himself from his home in Lake Worth, Fla. Although he had been feeling ill and was seriously thinking about staying home, he decided he had to be there for the race. This is what he had stayed alive to witness.
"My CEA (cancer screening) counts had been going down, but they've started to go back up again," Silvertand said. “So, I’m going in for a series of tests next week to see if the cancer has returned. But whatever happens, I didn’t expect to be here this long, so it’s all been wonderful for me. I try to plan things around Alex to keep me going. Right now, I’m planning on being at the Belmont, then the Travers in beautiful Saratoga, and the Breeders' Cup. I can see it all in my mind. I don't notice my pain because of all the excitement that’s going on. Maybe when everything quiets down tonight I won't feel as good as everyone else, but I’m still going to feel pretty good.
"This has been so much more than just a horse story. You have Alex’s Lemonade Stand (an amazing story in itself), which has been benefiting from all the publicity, and has gotten a great many people interested in horse racing. There are so many wonderful things in this world we will never get to see, and I’m just so glad to be here.”
Sadly, Silvertand lost his battle a year and a half later at age 61. As he said, there are many wonderful things in the world people will never get to see, but he certainly got to see one of them before he died.
Another inspiring moment was watching Sonia Desormeaux celebrating with her 9-year-old son Jacob following her husband Kent’s victory aboard Big Brown in 2008. For Jacob this was another day of sunshine and enduring images, and Sonia was treasuring the moment. Jacob was slowly losing his sight due to a genetic disorder called Usher Syndrome, which also caused him deafness since birth and required cochlear implants to compensate for his hearing loss. Doctors had told Kent and Sonia that Jacob would be legally blind by the time he reached adulthood.
But in the meantime, here he was running around like any normal child, enjoying all the excitement. “Jacob thinks it’s one big party,” Sonia said. “What he’s so excited about is that because of his dad’s win in the Preakness he won’t have homework for an entire week. His second-grade teacher promised he wouldn’t have to do homework if his dad won the Preakness. He has such a tremendous outlook on life. When he was 5, he looked out the back and said, ‘Mommy, look how beautiful it is outside. Today is going to be a wonderful day.’ He’s just completely changed life for all of us, and we’re so much more appreciative of every little thing. We just want Jacob to experience as much of life as possible as see everything he’s able to.”
As Sonia said, “He’s the happiest kid in the world.” And on this day, Big Brown and his dad made this another wonderful day.
I am surely going to miss the adventures of Blinkers, Kenny and Sue McPeek’s ravenous black Labrador. Blinkers, 120 pounds of jowls and joy had taken over the stakes barn in 1995, making the rounds each morning, cavorting, begging, and gorging himself on donuts, muffins, bagels and any other handout he could find. He became such a media hound his lovable puss was plastered all over the newspapers and local TV stations. By Preakness day, he had become a national celebrity, with write-ups in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and the Los Angeles Times. He even received a large bouquet of flowers and a card from two yellow Labradors from Tuxedo, N.Y.
McPeek was there with Kentucky Derby runner-up Tejano Run. But the big news was when Blinkers didn’t show up at the barn one morning. The morning before, he had wolfed down four bran muffins, washing them down with a drink from Preakness starter Mystery Train’s water bucket. McPeek had to report that Blinkers had one bran muffin too many. In reporting the big news in DRF I wrote that he had come down with a case of the Tejano Runs.
Wayne Lukas, who had Thunder Gulch and Timber Country, was not a big fan of Blinkers, especially when he took Thunder Gulch out to graze the same time Blinkers was playing “fetch” with a ball, and Blinkers chased the ball and darted right in front of Thunder Gulch, causing the Kentucky Derby winner to rear several times.
When Timber Country won the Preakness, Lukas popped open several bottles of champagne, while his wife Shari began cutting into their victory cake. That’s all it took for Blinkers to forget his loyalties and wander pitifully into the enemy camp looking for a handout. Shari had just cut a piece of cake and placed a napkin under it when Blinkers came running over. She reached down and gave him the slice, and Blinkers, wide-eyed and panting with excitement, wolfed down the cake…and the napkin.
On March 30, 2003, the McPeeks had to put Blinkers to sleep due to the infirmities of old age. For many years after, every time a member of the media would come out of the hospitality room with a donut or muffin, I couldn’t help but think of Blinkers, just waiting for him to come running over with those big eyes and drooling mouth looking for another handout.
Another moment I’ll remember were the looks on the children’s faces when Doug O’Neill and several members of his crew spent an afternoon at the nearby Boys and Girls Club, giving out signed hats, playing games, posing for pictures, and leading the kids in an “I’ll Have Another” chant. He gave out his share of high-fives and fist bumps. But most important, he brought a great deal of joy to these impoverished kids and made a number of new fans.
Yes, I will miss the many faces of the Preakness -- the crab cakes and crab soup at Michael’s; Jill Baffert taking photos of me feeding carrots to American Pharoah after the race; the great media parties at the Baltimore Aquarium, Fort McHenry, Camden Yards, and on the site of the TV show Homicide: Life on the Streets; interviewing the mayor of Baltimore as we waited on the tarmac at the airport for the arrival of Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus; and the side trips to Country Life Farm and Sagamore Farm and seeing the old stallion barn where Native Dancer and Discovery once resided.
I have to admit, Steve Cannon has come a long way.