Kent Desormeaux knows he's a marked man.
When he rode Fusaichi Pegasus to victory in the Kentucky Derby, the racing gods smiled upon him. A path along the rail opened for him down the entire backstretch.
Desormeaux steered his colt along the path, saving ground and time, until the far turn. There, he swung Fusaichi Pegasus wide for the start of his winning drive.
After the seemingly leisurely victory, many in racing began calling Fusaichi Pegasus the next great horse. And when that happens, the great horse becomes the one to beat.
In the 125th Preakness Stakes today at Pimlico Race Course, seven 3-year-olds will take their shot at the one 3-year-old in the bull's-eye, Fusaichi Pegasus.
If you check the odds, the large bay colt is close to unbeatable. But if you check the opposition, he's just another odds-on favorite in a sport where favorites win a third of the time.
"No, hell no, we're not conceding anything," said D. Wayne Lukas, trainer of High Yield. "No way. It's going to be a dogfight."
History shows that odds-on favorites in the Preakness (favorites at less than even money), have won 16 of 25 times. The last three, however, have lost (Easy Goer in 1989, Swale in 1984 and Linkage in 1982).
History also shows that if a horse is going to pull off an upset it's likely going to be a horse from the Kentucky Derby. Since Deputed Testamony skipped the Derby in 1983 and won the Preakness, 71 non-Derby starters have tried the Preakness and failed.
This year, three colts who bypassed the Derby have gathered in Baltimore for an assault upon Fusaichi Pegasus: Red Bullet, Hugh Hefner and Snuck In. They join four also-rans from the Derby - Impeachment (third), Captain Steve (eighth), High Yield (15th) and Hal's Hope (16th) - back for another try at the seemingly invincible Fusaichi Pegasus.
That's fine with Desormeaux, a Louisiana native who learned his trade in Maryland. He became a riding star here in the late 1980s and then moved to California for national fame. "It's like coming home," Desormeaux said yesterday on the Pimlico backstretch. "I may be a native of Louisiana, but I was raised in the racing industry right here in Maryland."
This is the more pensive, less brash Desormeaux. Since he and his wife, Sonia, discovered that their young son, Jacob, is deaf and needs brain surgery, the jockey has re-evaluated what's important.
"I think it's been a blessing in disguise," the jockey said. "I don't mean to downplay the importance of the race, but I know now that it's not the end of the world if I don't get there first.
"I've got different priorities in my life. ... Everything certainly seems to be in slow motion this year."
That may be a comfort to bettors who wagered on Real Quiet to win the 1998 Belmont. Many believed Desormeaux lost the race when he moved too soon on the Derby and Preakness winner, perhaps succumbing to the suffocating pressure of a Triple Crown bid.
This year, the words Triple Crown appear almost exclusively along with the words Fusaichi Pegasus. He has won five races in a row, all with ease, and most observers believe he hasn't even shown his best yet.
"He's the one horse if you said, 'Would you trade horses for him?' I'd say yes," said Bob Baffert, trainer of the Preakness contender Captain Steve. "And I'd throw in Silverbulletday, too."
Silverbulletday is Baffert's excellent filly. Still, the trainer said, he's not afraid of testing Fusaichi Pegasus one more time. Neither are the trainers of the other challengers.
Lukas, whose High Yield has thrived at Pimlico, said it's still too early to bronze Fusaichi Pegasus. He's run only six races. The one time another horse looked him in the eye, in his debut in December, he lost.
"There're two more races in front of him," Lukas said, referring to the Preakness and Belmont. "He's got a lot of ground still to cover.
"Now if [today] at sunset, he's won the Preakness as impressively as he won the Derby, then I'll feel a little more comfortable talking about him and greatness. But I want to see it first."
What: Preakness Stakes; second leg of horse racing's Triple Crown
Where: Pimlico Race Course
Post time: 5:27 p.m.
Gates open: 8:30 a.m.
Distance: 1 3/16 miles
TV: Chs. 2, 7 (coverage begins at 4:30 p.m.)
Kentucky Derby winner: Fusaichi Pegasus