Nick Zito had a bad feeling. It must have been the rain that was keeping Pimlico's track a muddy mess, he said.
But still, Zito, an intense but optimistic horse trainer, sent Halory Hunter onto the sloppy track yesterday for his final workout before Saturday's Preakness at Pimlico.
And now, Halory Hunter's racing career -- and perhaps his life -- are in jeopardy.
About 6: 30 a.m., the handsome chestnut colt -- fourth in the Kentucky Derby, a strong contender in the Preakness -- stepped awkwardly at the end of his five-eighths-mile workout. He severely fractured his left front cannon bone. Like an ax splitting a piece of wood, the break spiraled at least six inches up the shin.
Meanwhile, a surge of Preakness additions and defections, unparalleled in recent years, swirled around Pimlico.
Possible favorite Indian Charlie was withdrawn, and as many as six other horses suddenly appeared headed for the race.
But yesterday morning, the race seemed far from Zito's thoughts.
"We practically live in the stall with these horses," said a shaken Zito, surrounded by reporters inside a Pimlico hospitality tent as rain continued to fall. "You've got to understand. It's heartbreaking. What can I say?
"It's rained for 11 straight days. I knew it was going to be an off track. But I play the game to win. The horse plays the game to win. I wanted Halory Hunter to win the Preakness."
Zito's voice began to crack.
"That's the business we're in," he said. "It's still a great game. It's the greatest game played outdoors. I took a shot and played outdoors today. And I lost. What can I say? What can I say? I lost. I took a bad shot."
Halory Hunter, owned by Boston Celtics coach Rick Pitino, who was not at Pimlico, underwent one hour of surgery at New Bolton Center, a large-animal hospital in Kennett Square, Pa. Doctors inserted a plate and 12 screws to squeeze the bone back together.
Recovery went smoothly, and last night the horse stood in a stall.
Asked whether the injury, termed life-threatening in the morning, was still life-threatening, Dr. Dean Richardson, who performed the surgery, said: "It's less so now that he's up. The life-threatening part is largely over, but not completely over. He got through the toughest part."
Richardson said it was possible the horse could race again.
Meanwhile, trainers and owners all over the country began considering -- or reconsidering -- the Preakness.
Bob Baffert, trainer of Indian Charlie, said the colt was still knocked out from his third-place finish May 2 in the Kentucky Derby. And Derby runner-up Victory Gallop's representatives yesterday said yes to the Preakness, having said no earlier this week. Trainer D. Wayne Lukas entered the speedball Baquero. A horse named Silver's Prospect is in. A horse named Thomas Jo is a maybe. Chilito and Spartan Cat are almost in; their trainers said they're leaning strongly toward running.
And there's still time for surprises. Entries for the Preakness don't close until 10 a.m. today.
However, the loss of Halory Hunter deprives the race of a major contender with a high-profile trainer and charismatic owner. Zito FTC has said all year that Halory Hunter is one of the top 3-year-olds in the country. He proved it by winning the Blue Grass Stakes and then rallying for fourth in the Kentucky Derby.
"He's never run a bad race," Zito said. "He's a courageous horse, a very classy horse. And he's one of the soundest horses I've ever trained. I even boasted that he may be one of the better horses I'll ever have."
Zito said Halory Hunter showed no indication of physical problems before his misstep in the mud. After bobbling at the finish line, the horse quickly regained his balance and slowed to a halt.
His exercise rider, Terri Berwanger, remained in the saddle as John Allen, Zito's foreman, led the colt back to the barn. Allen led him straight into his stall, No. 17, where Dr. Dan Dreyfuss, a local veterinarian, took X-rays.
Zito stood outside the stall and covered his face with his hands. It continued to rain, and another Preakness horse, Classic Cat, went to the track for his final workout for the Preakness.
His went without a hitch. Afterward, his trainer, David Cross, said: "It was necessary to get this work in today. What happened to Halory Hunter, I feel bad because, believe me, I've gone through that a jillion times in my lifetime. But it's no bearing on the racetrack."
Zito blamed himself for sending out Halory Hunter -- but, like Cross, he had little choice. The horse needed his conditioning to run Saturday against the nation's best 3-year-olds.
"The only thing I can say is, I take full responsibility," Zito said. "I've just got to hope to God that the horse lives a long life and has a good life at stud and go from there. This game will humble kings."
Dreyfuss, the veterinarian, administered a painkiller, anti-inflammatories and antibiotics. Halory Hunter stood calmly in his stall. He even stuck his head out and munched from his hay rack.
Shortly after 10 a.m., a large silver van pulled up near the barn. Allen, the foreman, again led Halory Hunter. This time, the sleek, muscular colt was hindered by thick, compression bandages all the way up his left leg.
He hobbled from under the shedrow into the parking lot, dragging his left front foot. His horseshoe made a metallic scraping sound across the pavement.
Halory Hunter circled the van, navigated a slight rise, wet grass and more mud, and walked into the open door of the trailer. Allen situated him into a stall. Berwanger, the exercise rider, nuzzled and stroked his nose.
Then she turned and walked crisply away. The van pulled away.
A few minutes later, Berwanger, who was aboard Halory Hunter for perhaps his final ride, said:
"He took a bad step. What can you do? You love the horse. The horse is just wonderful to be around. It's been a great thrill all winter leading up to the Derby. The horse has given us everything."
Pub Date: 5/13/98