D. Wayne Lukas has sent horses and jockeys out for races in all kinds of weather in his 40-year Hall of Fame career. If he ever retires, Lukas will certainly remember the 140th Preakness.
It wasn't a matter of win, place and show Saturday at Pimlico Race Course as it was wind, rain and slop.
What the nearly 80-year-old trainer saw – or couldn't see, considering the elements – was among the worst conditions he had ever experienced for a race, and by far the worst he had witnessed in Baltimore.
"I've run in something like this, even worse – not much," Lukas said as he walked to the barn after his horse, Mr. Z, skidded from a close second past the halfway mark to a distant fifth. "Takes a helluva storm to stop a horse race."
Or a horse such as American Pharoah.
Despite fans in the grandstands being cleared as the skies rumbled with thunder and flashes of lightning danced in the near distance, the second leg of racing's Triple Crown continued on a 1 3/16-mile track that resembled a giant slip-and-slide rather than the stage for a dominant seven-length victory.
"It was pretty bad," said Mark Casse, trainer for sixth-place finisher Danzig Moon. "He hasn't stopped coughing since he came back. That's what happens when you eat all that stuff. God decided that he wanted to rain on it, so what do you do? It's just frustrating."
In a statement released after the race, Maryland Jockey Club vice president and Pimlico general manager Sal Sinatra said that after checking radar "nothing indicated that the conditions would deteriorate any further," and officials decided to start the race, as scheduled.
Since the horses were already saddled and there was only 10 minutes until post time, Sinatra said, "We didn't want to bring the horses to the closed paddock for fear it might unsettle some of them."
Sinatra added that if the weather had continued to worsen "we were prepared to evacuate at any time. Fortunately, despite the wind and rain, things slowly cleared up."
Casse thought that officials could have waited a few minutes for conditions to improve. As things turned out, the skies had started to clear by the time the race ended.
Casse said that at Woodbine Racetrack in Toronto, where his horses run a lot of races, "I don't think they would have put them on the track. They look at the weather and say, 'Hey, we've got this big front coming.' If we waited a few minutes, they do it for baseball games and golf."
Though his horse, Mr. Z, stayed neck-and-neck with American Pharoah for more than half the race, Lukas didn't blame the elements or second-guess the ride of veteran jockey Corey Nakatani. "The best horse won," Lukas said.
"He did it under adverse conditions, let's recognize that. That's important. He was clearly the best horse. The longest shot on the board [Tale of Verve, a 25-1 shot] ran second, so you know the adverse conditions affected the other seven, but didn't affect a good one like that. That's the bottom line."
Said Nakatani: "He [Mr. Z] ran dynamite today and he did everything he could to take on the winner under the circumstances. That winner is a really nice horse. It was very wet, sloppy, water was everywhere. I had a great trip other than I felt like I should have been on a shark or a dolphin."
Lukas, who was able to saddle Mr. Z for the Preakness after brokering a sale Wednesday morning between the horse's former owner, Ahmed Zayat, and Brad Kelley of Calumet Farm, said that Bob Baffert, who trains American Pharoah, came to him in the paddock shortly before the race began.
"He said, 'You're the fly in the ointment', and I said, 'You've got it right," Lukas said. "He was very aware that we were going to go [out fast]. When he cleared us, American Pharoah had the trip he wanted. He dominated. He's the best horse. What did I say coming in here? I said, 'Don't play exactas, don't play superfectas, bet everything on this horse.'"
When the skies opened up, Casse wasn't sure what would happen. He was certainly aware of American Pharoah's eight-length win in the slop in the Arkansas Derby last month. He wasn't sure how Danzig Moon, would fare in the Baltimore mud.
"You always have hope," Casse said outside the barn after the race. "What you're hoping for — and we have no idea — is that our horse loves it as much as anybody. You work and work and work to get him ready, and you just want to have a shot at a fair race. If they beat you they beat you."
Casse is considering giving another of his 3-year-olds, Conquest Curlinate, a shot at American Pharoah at the Belmont Stakes.
"He's a great horse and maybe we'll have a Triple Crown winner," Casse said. "We'll regroup and we're going to fire another one at him. We'll try a new bullet next time. We'll maybe take another run at him there. He's a tough horse, he's a good horse."
Certainly the toughest mudder at Pimlico.