Anyone who has seen a thoroughbred in full stride has probably wondered: Where would they go if they could roam free?
The answer for a 4-year-old gelding named Bullet Catcher who escaped Laurel Park Friday morning is that he followed the road ahead of him. Which saved his life.
“We’re not really sure why he stuck to the road so closely, or how he happened to hit all the lights and make the right turns,” said Mark Rosenthal, a former jockey and owner of the gelding. “He’s a lucky horse.”
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After throwing jockey Jeremy Rose around 9 a.m. Friday following a workout, Bullet Catcher ran past a security outpost at the back of the track — officials didn’t have time to close the gate, Rosenthal said — and veered right toward the open road.
Bullet Catcher eventually covered 1.6 miles — that's 12.8 furlongs — and ran through three different counties, as Anne Arundel, Howard and Prince George's converge near the track. He ran for only a few minutes, and the excursion lasted about 20 minutes from the time he bolted to the time he was back munching on hay at the barn.
According to the state’s top rider in 2012, Abel Castellano, Bullet Catcher saw his chance to run and took it. Castellano had finished working a horse and was in his car getting read to drive around the track to park closer to the jockey’s room.
“But I just saw this horse go, 'Boom!' He was off and I knew I had to follow,” he said.
Rosenthal had been aboard a different horse, watching workouts from the track when he heard the not-unsual call of “Loose horse!” He trotted toward the track entrance and saw Rose on the ground, who quickly told him what happened (Rose was fine and rode in Friday’s races after the incident). By the time Rosenthal looked up, Bullet Catcher was on his way out of the facility.
“I just went into a panic,” Rosenthal said.
The horse turned left onto Whiskey Bottom Road and dashed toward Route 1, where cars sped through the intersection without any thought that a horse might be charging up the road. But he arrived at the Route 1 light just as the left-turn arrow went green. Bullet Catcher obliged, heading southwest at nearly full speed.
Castellano followed from a distance at first and said Bullet Catcher was running at a 30-mile-per hour gallop. When Route 1 split, Bullet Catcher again made a fortuitous choice and veered to his right, avoiding head-on traffic. Rosenthal, who had disembarked his horse and jumped in his car, was well behind the action.
“By the time I got up to the road, everybody knew what I was looking for,” he said. “People had pulled over a bit and were pointing ahead. But I was thinking, ‘How far ahead could he be? Why would he go that far?’ I expected him to dart across the road like a deer.”
Castellano stayed in pursuit and eventually pulled out his cellphone and started to take video.
After a few minutes, Bullet Catcher slowed — he had already breezed a half a mile on the track that morning. Castellano and others who had given chase were able to jump out of their vehicles and catch him. One of the wranglers was long-time trainer Charles “Snake” Frock.
“I have never seen anything like it, and I have been at the racetrack for more than 50 years,” Frock told Laurel Park officials. “I was coming from the farm in Westminster and saw him on Whiskey Bottom Road and did a U-turn to try to help.”
But Rosenthal wasn’t sure what to make of the gathering near the Chrysler dealership when he approached. From a few hundred yards away, he could only see a half-dozen stopped vehicles and a crowd of people.
“I thought, ‘Oh God, he just got hit,’” he said. “Or I thought there’d been an accident because of him.”
Instead, he pulled up to find his horse prancing a bit but mostly calm — as if he’d just run a race. Frock was able to fit Bullet Catcher in his horse transport van and return him to his stall at Laurel Park. “Horsemen stick together,” Rosenthal said.
Bullet Catcher never lost a shoe and appeared healthy apart from some abrasions on his feet. Castellano had thought the concrete would be too slippery to run on at full speed.
“He's definitely the grand champion of running on hard surfaces,” he said.
Bullet Catcher has one win and three on-the-board finishes in six lifetime starts. Rosenthal’s outfit, No Guts, No Glory, bought him for $9,600 in 2010.
Employees from several businesses along the route said they did not see the horse's unusual jaunt.
Horses often break loose on the track or in the barn area of racetracks. Nobody at Laurel Park can remember a horse actually leaving the area and running down the road, though.
Bullet Catcher isn’t an ornery horse, and nothing Rose or anyone else did scared him into his sprint, Rosenthal said.
“He was just feeling good,” he said. “That’s all. That’s what horses do whey they feel good. They run.”