Dickie Small grew up fox hunting with his family in Baltimore County, and the veteran horse trainer has occasionally seen the skittish red or gray creatures running around various tracks over the years. So the sight of a red fox at Pimlico Race Course early one morning last month did not make Small blink.
The difference with this fox became quickly apparent — it kept coming out of its den, almost on a daily basis.
"If it rains, it stays in," Small said Friday. "And sometimes it oversleeps."
It has been spotted several times this week on or near the track as exercise riders took their horses out for an early morning workout. There have been rumors, at this stage unfounded, that one brave soul has been feeding the fox cat food.
"Most of the horses treat it like it's a dog, they ignore it," Small said. "Most of the riders don't pay attention to it either. But one boy was scared and kept saying, 'Get away, get away.' He ended up getting dropped [fell off his horse] and had to walk back."
Jack Sisterson, assistant trainer for Kentucky Derby champion I'll Have Another, said he saw the fox Friday for the second time this week.
"He stays on the grass [of the turf track] and will put his paw or whatever you call it on the turf, but when the horses come by, he'll jump back on the grass and sort of hang out watching," Sisterson said. "It's kind of amusing."
Track officials don't appear too concerned about the fox making a surprise appearance during Saturday's running of the 137th Preakness Stakes. The last fox to have an impact on the race was Sly Fox, the 1898 champion.
In fact, Small said as more people showed up this week for the second leg of the Triple Crown, the fox seemed to be content staying in its den. Small thinks the fox lives somewhere near the infield — "around the tote board," he said — and would likely be sleeping off a feast of trackside flowers by the time the tens of thousands begin to show up for the big race.
Rick Walls of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services division, agrees. Walls said Friday that foxes tend to be nocturnal, but "it's not unusual to see them come out during the day at this time of year when they're trying to feed their young."
Walls said while foxes do "get comfortable" coming out in residential neighborhoods among a small number of people, it's a long shot in making its Preakness debut Saturday.
"With 100,000 people or so, I can't see it making an appearance," Walls said.
A Health Department spokesman said Animal Control will have one of its officers at Pimlico on race day.
"If there are any problems, we should be able to take care of it," Brian Schleter said.
Sisterson wanted to know whether the fox had a name. When told it doesn't, Sisterson had a suggestion.
"How about I'll Have Another Fox?" he said.