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Sports Horse Racing

Q&A with The Sun's Tom Keyser

Tom Keyser has been covering horse racing for The Sun for the past eight years.


R. Plociennik, Pasadena: During the prelude to this year's Derby, seems I took favorite to the underdogs: Smarty Jones and Pollard's Vision. I'm thrilled for Smarty, but what's the scoop on Pollard...and do you think he'll be in the Preakness or Belmont?

Keyser: Todd Pletcher, trainer of Pollard's Vision, says the colt won't run in either the Preakness or Belmont. He says he'll try to find easier spots for Pollard's Vision. The Ohio Derby might be the next likely ace, he says. I took to the underdogs, too. I went to Louisville figuring to pick against Smarty Jones, but I became captivated by the horse, his story and Sherry and John Servis, who were delightful. I don't think I 've ever seen anyone in racing deal with the press and public more affably than John Servis did. He and Sherry have been married 23 years and seem to get along great. That's saying something in this day and age. As for Pollard's Vision, I met him in March at the Palm Meadows training center in Florida. I talked with two of his exercise riders, one of whom is Angel Cordero Jr., and they said he's a pleasure to ride. They swore they don't ride him any differently than any other horse, but to me, I think if I was riding a horse who was blind in one eye I'd constantly keep that in mind. I was hoping he'd do better in the Derby. Pletcher says he thought the slop would help Pollard's Vision, but as it turned out, he didn't handle it, just as several other Derby horses didn't. I'll tell you, it poured a couple of hours before the race - buckets and buckets, with wind and lightning so close it crackled.

Bob K, Hunt Valley: What are the specifics on Quintons Gold Rush? Did he cross the finish line with a rider? What happened?

Keyser: This is so funny. I got three phone calls asking the same thing, and now I get this. I don't know whether Quintons Gold Rush crossed the finish line or not. I asked Barbara Livingston, a photographer who was on the finish line, and she says she's pretty sure he did. She remembers seeing him in the frantic moments after the race when the photographersscramble to get into position to photograph the winner coming back. However, because that time is so crazy, and because she wasn't paying particular attention to Quintons Gold Rush, she says she can say with only 80-percentcertainty that he crossed the finish line with his rider.

Bill, Towson: Had it been a fast track last Saturday at the Kentucky Derby, do you think the results would have changed? If so, which horse do you think might have won?

Keyser: I honestly don't know. Smarty Jones might have won anyway. He looked unbeatable. I think it's safe to say horses such as Tapit and The Cliff's Edge would have run better. In fact, all the closers probably would have run better. As you know, a track like that favors speed. You've got to feel for the closers back there getting mud kicked in their faces for a mile and a quarter. I wish the track had been dry so we could have seen more of the horses at their best. This was such an interesting Derby because it seemed so wide open; so many things could have happened. Let's hope the weather's nice for the Preakness and Belmont. Still, it's a shame we couldn't see that intriguing Derby field race over a dry track. We'll never know what might have happened then.

Tom, Aberdeen: With only two of the top five [Derby finishers] likely coming to Pimlico, should the Triple Crown be stretched out over a longer period instead?

Keyser: What a battle between tradition and innovation that question raises! I can see both sides of the debate (which is typical for me, and that's why I couldn't be a modern-day columnist). I think it'd be better for the horses if it was stretched out, or even if it was moved back later in the year. But the Triple Crown is one of the few things in racing that works(as far as the public is concerned), so I doubt we'll see it tinkered with anytime soon.

D.D. Hart, Cobb Island: Did Birdstone lose her front or back shoe? What kind of shoes was Smarty Jones wearing?

Keyser: Birdstone lost his left front shoe. I don't know what kind of shoes Smarty Jones was wearing, but I'll try to find out for you.

Michael Kuhn, Glen Burnie: I've been a horse racing fan since the mid 1980's, and I always read your column. My question is about D. Wayne Lukas. Over the years it seems any decent 2 or 3-year-old he's had has been washed up or retired through injury by the time it was 4 years old. The only exception was Serena's Song. Any good older horse he had was becausehe didn't have it when it was younger. Do you think he was mismanaging Azeri by running her 7 furlongs? She's probably the best female since Bayakoa, but turning a star at 1 1/16 or a 1 1/8 back to 7 furlongs is ridiculous. He seemed to want to say it was to get her exposure on Derby day, but that isn't right. I know he has credentials, but what is your opinion of him?

Keyser: You've been following racing longer than I have, and you seem to have picked up on some of the things I've heard about Lukas since I started covering racing in 1996. I've never conducted a study of what happens to Lukas' good 2 and 3-year-olds compared to what happens to them with other trainers. But I know the strong perception is that his don't last. ... I wondered the same thing about Azeri. I liked the idea of giving her exposure on Derby day, but I thought the idea of running her at seven furlongs was, at best, curious.

Baltimoresun.com reader in Baltimore: What's the best Preakness or most memorable one you've covered or seen?

Keyser: I've covered only eight Preaknesses, and easily the most memorable was the second, in 1997. That finish among Silver Charm, Free House and Captain Bodgit was breathtaking. I still wonder in that year's Derby, if Solis had been able to keep Captain Bodgit straight down the stretch, would he have won?

Larrythelegend, Monterey, Calif.: Will the track be sealed after a deluge like in Churchill Downs? Track maintenance decisions so important?

Keyser: That's a question for Butch Lehr and John Passero, track superintendents at Churchill Downs and Pimlico, respectively. I know that horsemen at each track think their man is the best in the country, so both surfaces are in good hands. Generally, a track is sealed before a deluge. It's packed down and the water runs off.

Katie, Springfield, Va.: Do you think that hometown favorite Water Cannon has an advantage because he has run so often in Maryland? In other words to you give any merit to a home track advantage? Also, do the trainer and jockey have advantages because they know how the track at Pimlico runs?

Keyser: Yes, I believe in the home-track advantage. Everyone involved with the horse is in familiar territory, especially the horse, who doesn't have to travel and can stay in his own stall. I don't know how much difference that will make for Water Cannon. He hasn't run against horses as good as ones he'll meet in the Preakness. But who knows? Magic Weisner was 45-1 in the 2002 Preakness, and we all know what he did.

L.S., Baltimore County: What are your thoughts regarding slots and the proposed new racetrack at the Inner Harbor? Do you think the continued failure of slots legislation in Maryland dooms Pimlico or horse racing in the state?

Keyser: Without slots Maryland racing will continue its downward slide. It's mind-boggling to me that they haven't been legalized in Maryland. ...I'd love to see a new track built in Maryland, at the Inner Harbor or anywhere. I'd love to see one "super" track, with nightclubs, a concert pavilion, restaurants and whatever else you'd like to put there to attractpeople. Sell Bowie, sell Laurel Park, sell Pimlico and, heck, sell the fairgrounds in Timonium. Take the proceeds and combine a track with a new fairgrounds that would be the envy of every state in the country.

Willy, Baltimore: Why do some horse owners run the Derby, skip the Preakness but say they'll likely run the Belmont? I really wanted to see the Maryland horse, Tapit, in the Preakness.

Keyser: You still might. Tapit's connections haven't ruled it out completely, although they're leaning heavily toward the Belmont. Owners believe it's too much to ask of a horse to run in the Preakness two weeks after running in the Derby. Hardly anyone runs good horses back in two weeks, especially after probably the most grueling race of their careers. If horses run in the Derby and wait for the Belmont, then they have five weeks to recover and regain their strength. That's the big reason it's so hard to win the Triple Crown. You have to win three races in five weeks, and in the second and third races you're facing fresh horses. Last year, Empire Maker finished second in the Derby, skipped the Preakness and then knocked off Funny Cide in the Belmont. This year, it appears that Imperialism, Tapit and Friends Lake will skip the Preakness and await the Belmont. Any one of them could defeat Smarty Jones at 1 ½ miles, unless, of course, Smarty Jones is another Seattle Slew.

Baltimoresun.com reader in Baltimore: It is early, but do you have a prediction or favorite in the Preakness?

Keyser: Assuming Smarty Jones comes to the Preakness in good shape, he'll be hard to beat, I think. And I'm confident that if Smarty Jones isn't in good shape, then John Servis, his trainer, won't bring him. That'd be sad, wouldn't it - a Preakness without Smarty Jones? On the other hand, if Smarty Jones doesn't come, then I think you'll see horses coming fromeverywhere to run.

Jack C. Pennington, Baltimore: Do you have any information on Jockey Frankie Pennington? There is nothing on-line about him except that we see him riding at Penn National and Pimlico. My son and I are horse racing fans and we are trying to follow Frankie, but are having trouble getting personal information regarding his riding.

Keyser: Mike Gathagan, head of communications for the Maryland Jockey Club, says Pennington is an apprentice jockey based at Penn National. A couple of times a month, he rides in Maryland for the owner Michael Gill. Gathagan says Pennington has won four or five races in Maryland at the claiming level.

Fred Sims, Oakland, Calif: Do you think that there was ever a better horse than Secretariat as far as speed and beauty is concerned?

Keyser: I'm sorry, but I'm not the one to ask. I've covered racing only since 1996, and I wasn't an ardent follower of it before that.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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