BALTIMORE - 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 yesterday. "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 4 3/4 lengths ahead of the filly Eight Belles.
The filly crossed the finish line and was galloping out toward the backstretch when it unexpectedly 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 on television.
Its 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 with laminitis.
"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.
Big Brown is the early 1-2 favorite, and drew the No. 7 post position in the 13-horse field.
So providing a safe dirt racing surface and letting the horses do the talking through their performances is Pimlico's goal, one of the sport's four major days that attract a national spotlight.
"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 Artax.
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.
"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 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.