disaster, euphoria at the preakness

By Dick Jerardi

It was 5 1/2  hours between the horrifying moment when Havnameltdown broke down last Saturday at Pimlico and National Treasure crossed the finish line first in the Preakness. The 3-year-old colts, costing a collective $700,000, were in nearby stalls in the stakes barn when Preakness Day began. When the racing day ended, National Treasure was being walked back to his stall after being draped with Black Eyed Susans while Havnameltdown’s stall was empty.

If ever there was a time that exemplified horse racing circa spring 2023, Saturday afternoon at Pimlico, its old grandstand condemned, awaiting state funding to take down its obsolete main building and build a new one, was it.

An hour before the Preakness back at the barn where National Treasure and Havnameltdown had been housed all week, the tears streaking Jill Baffert’s face told one story. Minutes after the Preakness, what passed for celebration told another.

That both horses are/were in trainer Bob Baffert’s care made the juxtaposition of death and victory “the’’ story of Preakness Day. Havnameltdown’s front leg injury was so catastrophic that there was no way the brilliantly fast and talented colt could be saved. Why it happened is a question with no obvious answer, but that is not going to stop anybody from thinking they know what happened, why it happened and who is responsible. 

The truth is somewhat more elusive.

Depending on your point of view, Baffert is either horse racing’s Lance Armstrong or the best big race trainer of his generation, a master of the Triple Crown races, the 2023 Preakness his record 17th TC win. There is not much middle ground.

I find myself in that unexplored middle ground. I have known Baffert for 25 years and have found him accessible and reasonable. Do I have any idea what goes on behind the scenes at his barn? Nope. When people ask me if Baffert is clean or cheating, my answer is unsatisfying: I don’t know.

The word “doping’’ is now thrown around indiscriminately, the difference between therapeutic drugs and performance enhancing drugs unexplained by racing authorities or much of the media. The testing world is, at best, murky which explains why it is so difficult to understand. Hopefully, HISA will be better at explaining what has heretofore been so often misunderstood.

Here is what I know to be true. Trainers using performance enhancers are not that difficult to spot. When horses improve their speed figures overnight by 20 or 30 points, that is not because the horse’s feed has been changed.

Baffert’s horses rarely show that kind of overnight improvement. I liked National Treasure to win the Preakness for several reasons: 1. The colt looked like he would control the race from the front in moderate fractions which is exactly what happened, 2. It was a historically weak Preakness with only one Kentucky Derby alum for the first time in 75 years, 3. The colt’s recent workouts which I watched on XBTV were brilliant, 4. The tapes of his races all ended the same way, with National Treasure winning the gallop out no matter where he finished.

National Treasure was a colt with untapped talent. The 2023 Preakness was the perfect spot to reveal it. There was nothing magical about what happened. It was all fundamentals.

When he arrived in Baltimore late last week, Baffert was back at a Triple Crown race for the first time in exactly two years. He missed the 2022 Triple Crown because of a 90-day suspension resulting from a positive for an anti-inflammatory in Medina Spirit’s system after the colt finished first in the 2021 Derby. Given what was known at the time, the suspension was not unreasonable, but the circumstances of how the medication ended up in the horse’s system remain in dispute and will eventually be decided in court.

If Baffert had not had other similar violations just prior to Medina Spirit, he may have even gotten the benefit of the doubt. There was nothing in any of those violations that constituted “doping.’’ That, however, got lost in the headlines after Churchill Downs suspended Baffert for two years which is why he did not have a horse in the 2023 Derby.

If Havnameltdown had not broken down, “the’’ story would have been about the Preakness winner after Baffert’s return from Triple Crown exile. But Havnameltdown did break down and did have to be euthanized so the story got far more complicated.

We all know horses are fragile animals which run at high speeds on 1,000-pound frames. The incidents of these tragic breakdowns have come down across North America in recent years as more stringent protocols have been put into place. It is unlikely a horse with Forte’s issues would have been scratched from the Derby even five years ago. Hopefully, HISA will be able to help reduce breakdowns even more, but we are not going to get to zero.

Why there was this cluster of horse deaths Derby Week at Churchill Downs, with two on Derby Day and then Havnameltdown on the Preakness undercard, is unexplained at this point.

Baffert, especially, is a lightning rod, both because of his unprecedented success, a history of medication violations (not all that different in severity or frequency from some of his brethren) and horses that have died in his care. The “Washington Post’’ did a study a few years ago that suggested Baffert’s horses died at a frequency higher than almost any trainer in Southern California. Baffert’s lawyers disputed the study’s methodology.

I could certainly be wrong about this, but Havnameltdown is the first Baffert horse I remember breaking down on a major racing day. What happened over a period of years in Southern California, I do not know. But if the Post’s numbers are accurate, there is or at least was a problem.

I am actually pretty good at saying I don’t know, a phrase that has pretty much disappeared from the lexicon in a world where so many think they know so much about everything and can’t imagine being wrong about anything. So the Baffert haters were out in force after Havnameltdown’s breakdown.

Me? I just felt sadness for the horse, his caretakers and his owners. Blame is so easy to ascribe, facts so much more difficult to ascertain.

So, Bob Baffert is back, winning his record eighth Preakness. How he acts or what he says is received depending on a point of view long held and unlikely to be changed. And this is what he said the morning after the Preakness: “To me, the memory of the race would be that I lost Havnameltdown. It was nice to win the race, but to me it was a pretty sad day.’’   


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