Trainers have said all week that they are running against Best Pal, the heavy favorite in today's Pimlico Special, just in case "he stubs his toe."
Instead, the horse just might get stuck in the mud.
The complexion of the $700,000 race changed considerably yesterday after heavy rains soaked the course.
More sporadic showers are forecast for today, but even a drying-out course brings back memories of the same sort of track Best Pal caught last year in the Preakness. He finished fifth.
"What's the thing you dislike most about training horses that you have no control over?" someone asked trainer Neil Drysdale last week in Louisville as he prepared A.P. Indy for the Kentucky Derby. "The weather," he replied.
Gary Jones probably feels the same way.
Jones, Best Pal's affable trainer, said he spent yesterday in his hotel room "behind the phones, looking out the window."
He painted a pretty morose picture.
Jones brought Best Pal to Pimlico Race Course three weeks early so the horse could get a feel of the track. Gary Stevens, the horse's Preakness rider, had told him Best Pal simply didn't get hold of the Pimlico surface last year.
This year's strip, a bit different after track officials added a new type of sand during the summer, didn't particularly grab Best Pal either after his first couple of workouts.
Then Kent Desormeaux, the horse's jockey who is unbeaten in four starts on Best Pal this year, flew in last weekend from California and breezed the 4-year-old gelding six furlongs in the quick time of 1 minute, 12 seconds.
"That was on a dry track," Jones said. "Now it's raining."
Best Pal has won the San Fernando and Charles H. Strub stakes and the Santa Anita and Oaklawn handicaps this year to compile a perfect record. His $1 million-plus earnings, added to his previous total, rank him 11th on the list of all-time thoroughbred earners, with winnings of $3,388,695. Alysheba is the leader, with earnings of $6,679,242.
But all of Best Pal's wins have been on fast racetracks.
The condition of today's track probably will not cause Jones to scratch Best Pal. "It looks like we will probably run," he said. "I won't know how he'll handle it until I gallop him over it this morning. I'll tell the jock [in the race] to protect him if he doesn't take hold of it [the surface]."
Jones, who has been accessible and easygoing all week, said yesterday that he is a bit on edge.
"The odds are against us," he said. "We're 4-for-4, there is a new equation [the highweight of 126 pounds] and the horse has never won on an off track."
Jones said Thursday that he thought the horse to beat might be Defensive Play.
Yesterday, he changed his mind to Ibero.
"He's a superior mudder," Jones said. "He's a Grade III runner on a dry track, but a Grade I runner in the mud."
Jones added, however, that the prognosis for Best Pal is more doubt than gloom and doom.
"He worked great in the mud at Oaklawn Park," Jones said.
It is no secret that Best Pal is the most genuine horse in training.
"After I got him [last June from previous trainer Ian Jory], it took me six months to figure him out," Jones said. "For the first six months he had me figured out. But now he's more consistent, more push-button. If we want him to go in 48 [seconds], he'll go in 48. It's been a natural process. He's matured with time. We know he likes to run on the outside, in the clear, and make a big move. When you look back and see how he ran in last year's Derby -- he was trapped on the inside -- then you realize he should have won that race instead of finishing second."
Best Pal is the culmination of 30 years of breeding horses for John and Betty Mabee. Their 450-acre Golden Eagle Farm is located near Del Mar racetrack in Ramona, Calif. The Mabees' operation rivals that of Arazi's Allen Paulson in size and quality. Their racing manager, Gail Van Leer, said the Mabees own 550 horses.
"There are 180 in training and about 116 of those are 2-year-olds," she said. "When everything shakes out, we'll have about 90 2-year-olds that we will send to 16 different trainers."
Last year, the Mabees won an Eclipse Award as the nation's outstanding breeders. They bred a record 25 stakes winners.
Jones said he trains eight horses for the Mabees, including stakes winners Heart of Joy and Golden Treat.
"Of course," he added, "there's only one Best Pal. You only have to show him something one time, then he knows what to do. He's the smartest horse I've ever been around. He's a total freak."