Standing in the mist at Pimlico yesterday, Nick Zito smiled at the brouhaha brewing over the idea of a skittish colt named Coronado's Quest possibly receiving special treatment before Saturday's Preakness.
"I'm taking the high road here," said Zito, who trains Halory Hunter. "As long as they don't give [Coronado's Quest] a head start and as long as no rules are broken, I have no problems with anything [Pimlico officials] want to do."
That "high road" is the sensible stance in this situation, unlike the overheated positions taken by rival trainers D. Wayne Lukas and Bob Baffert.
"[Coronado's Quest] has to do everything [before the race] like the rest of us," said Baffert, who trains Indian Charlie and Kentucky Derby-winner Real Quiet.
"We're all going to play on the same playing field," said Lukas, who trains Cape Town.
"I'm flabbergasted that the level of sportsmanship has sunk to this," said Lenny Hale, vice president of racing for the Maryland Jockey Club. "This is getting pretty petty."
Lukas and Baffert are right to demand that Coronado's Quest not receive any favored treatment that could have a bearing on the race. Beating Coronado's Quest, winner of the Wood Memorial Stakes, will be tough enough without that.
But with all due respect, Baffert and, particularly, Lukas need to calm down.
Shug McGaughey, the trainer of Coronado's Quest, isn't asking for any favors.
"All he wants is to run in the race and have no one get hurt," Hale said.
The only consideration that McGaughey wants is for Coronado's Quest to walk last in the post parade so the colt won't bother the other horses if he stops.
"Makes sense," Zito said. "I don't want him near my horse."
At last check, McGaughey wasn't asking for a head start.
"Tell Wayne Lukas not to get to crying too much," McGaughey told The Sun's Tom Keyser, "because we're going to do everything just like everybody else."
The colt has received special treatment before because of his habit of throwing temper tantrums before races. He freezes on the track, causing his jockey to dismount, then won't let the jockey back on.
McGaughey saddled him in a tunnel between the track and paddock last winter at Gulfstream Park.
When he jogged without his rider before the Fountain of Youth Stakes in February, he infuriated Lukas, who complained that the colt wouldn't carry his jockey's weight for as long as the other horses. A valid point.
But Coronado's Quest has trained and raced without incident since returning home to Belmont Park in March. He experienced no problems before the Wood, although Baffert was upset that the colt was able to leave the paddock while his skittish colt was stuck there.
Anyway, Preakness rules stipulate only that all horses are saddled at the same time, meaning they carry the jockey's weight for the same amount of time. They're usually saddled on the turf course in the infield, but trainers have the option of saddling in the paddock.
In other words, it's no big deal, and no one has really cared. Until now.
Lukas called Hale to say that he'd saddle Cape Town wherever McGaughey saddled Coronado's Quest.
"Mr. Sportsmanship himself," Hale said about Lukas. "Everyone has had a rough horse at some point. You'd think they'd understand."
Baffert didn't call Hale, but he told reporters Coronado's Quest also should have to walk from the stakes barn to the track with the rest of the field, in the order of their post positions. In other words, he shouldn't get to go off by himself.
"There's no rule governing that," Hale said. "And [racing stewards] let horses break away from the post parade all the time.
"When Mr. Baffert gets a racetrack, then he can make the rules."
The reality is that racing often makes allowances for skittish and contrary horses.
Horses race with eye blinkers, tongue-ties and cotton in their ears. They're saddled away from the paddock. They're blindfolded for easier loading into the starting gate. Sometimes, they're loaded backward. Who cares?
The essence of the sport is to give all horses every chance to get to the starting gate and race as best they can. It's their best interests that matter, not the agendas of various trainers.
If a delicate horse needs help, he gets help -- as long as it is within the rules.
Thus, the playing field for any race seldom is perfectly level. Some horses race on Lasix, some with special shoes, some after being gelded. There are many variables, tilts in the playing field.
Who knows if or when they separate winners from losers? You certainly can't quantify it.
But the point is that the fastest horses still usually win in the end.
Races are decided between the starting gate and the finishing line.
To suggest they're decided beforehand, by some minor tweak, is ridiculous.
Where Coronado's Quest walks in the post parade won't have any bearing on the Preakness, for crying out loud.
Nor will it matter where he is saddled.
"As long as he has to leave the gate with the rest of us, there's no problem," Zito said.
McGaughey isn't asking for treatment that would break any rules and tilt the Preakness in his favor.
He isn't asking for anything, it turns out.
Those who have a problem with that probably are just worried about getting beat.
Pub Date: 5/12/98