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Tension in stable condition before race


An hour before the Preakness, there is a nervous quiet on the backstretch at Pimlico.

Birds chirp in the trees near the Stakes Barn, an airplane with a marriage proposal circles overhead, and a Fuji Film blimp floats silently in the blue sky.

In the stalls, the only sounds are birdlike chirps as a handler whistles to Prairie Bayou in Stall 30, trying to calm the 2-1 favorite.

At the far end of the barn, D. Wayne Lukas, the trainer of Union City, sits in a director's chair talking to a group of three that grows to five. To emphasize his point, Lukas repeatedly flails his arms. His audience listens intently.

Tension fills the barn area. The horses are not oblivious. Koluctoo Jimmy Al hangs his head out of Stall 31 and swings it repeatedly.

Several of Koluctoo Jimmy Al's handlers work with the horse at once, and at 4:35 -- about an hour before Preakness post time -- trainer Bruce Levine retreats to a wooden bench. There, he waits out the final minutes until it's time to saddle up.

By now, intense expressions have replaced what were light smiles. Handlers who haven't already done so are now changing from work clothes into more suitable attire. Owners, dressed in sport shirts and ties -- sans their coats -- attend to last-minute details.

By 4:45, word is sent out to get the horses ready. By this time, it is a relief to lurch into action. A sense of urgency has invaded the barn.

Slowly, one by one, the horses form a line around shed row. By 4:52, they make a veritable parade.

At 4:56, Woods of Windsor is the final horse out of the barn, as Preakness officials shout, "Let's go, let's go."

The wait is nearly over, although the nerves are not. Prairie Bayou goes to the indoor paddock before going to the infield. At the starting gate,Koluctoo Jimmy Al acts up and finally has to be blindfolded.

The pressure at the Stakes Barn had been building early. By noon, the back side of the barn had been closed off to the media. When it was reopened an hour later, no interviews were allowed.

Everybody, it seems, was feeling the pressure.

"Yeah, I feel it," said Pat Daniels, the exercise rider and assistant trainer for local colt Woods of Windsor, who ended up finishing sixth. "I take a lot of pride in what I do. I put a lot of work into this colt. It was a lot of work to get him to settle and work correctly."

Woods of Windsor "bounced around the shed row" during his morning walk, and Daniels was buoyant with expectation.

"We come into this race as well-prepared as any horse," he said. "I look for him to run big this afternoon. Win, lose or draw, he will give it a heck of an effort."

And yet, Daniels said this was the quantum leap for the Maryland-bred horse. "It's like going from the Toledo Mud Hens to the Boston Red Sox," he said. "It's a big jump."

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