In a pensive moment Saturday, before the Preakness Stakes, jockey Mike Smith might gaze out at the track and see himself, 25 years ago, thundering down the stretch aboard the chestnut gelding who had captured his heart.
“Every time I go to Pimlico, I remember Prairie Bayou,” Smith said of the 1993 Preakness champion. “I still have a lot of feelings for that horse; he’s always in my thoughts.”
Even now, as Smith readies to ride Justify, the Kentucky Derby winner, he speaks tenderly about the affable thoroughbred on whom he won his first of five Triple Crown races a quarter-century ago.
“Not only was he talented, but Prairie Bayou was a very, very kind horse whom you couldn’t help but fall in love with,” he said. “If the sun came out while he was grazing, he’d just lie down and enjoy the day. And you could go lie on top of him.
“He knew life was good and he loved his job. In the morning, as we’d go to the track to breeze, he’d stop about every 10 steps and lean his head back so I could scratch it. He loved to stop and smell the flowers, but once we got out there, he meant business. And he never let you down.”
Smith acknowledged that he might have gotten too close to Prairie Bayou.
“Should I have bonded with him? It was probably not a wise thing to do,” he said — especially given the tragedy that befell the horse. In the Belmont Stakes, Prairie Bayou broke down and had to be destroyed at the track. His death still resonates with Smith, 52, who choked up while recalling it.
“It was an extremely sad end, about as bad as you can get,” the jockey said. “But I was blessed to be with him.”
Prairie Bayou snuck up on the racing world. Of modest parentage, he was gelded as a yearling to help balance his weight, which was heavy up front. Big and gawky at 2, he lost the $50,000 Inner Harbor Stakes at Laurel Park to a $4,000 nag. He hit his stride as a 3-year-old, though his starts were often sluggish and his looks, nondescript. His handlers playfully called him Prairie Dawg.
“He’s not the most beautiful or fancy horse,” co-owner Mary Lynn Dudley would say. “But he tries so hard. He gets so far behind that I wonder if he is ever going to start to run.”
Prairie Bayou’s other owner, John Ed Anthony, was more blunt:
“He’s always seeming to be doing the wrong thing — or looking as if he is.”
A closer by nature, he captured two Triple Crown prep races, including the $600,000 Jim Beam Stakes, where he squatted on his haunches in the gate. But he roared back to win it down the stretch.
“He’s got a real abrupt turn of foot,” said jockey Chris McCarron, who rode him that day. “It’s nice to know you’re sitting on a horse that can quickly accelerate for you.”
The grudging favorite in the Kentucky Derby, Prairie Bayou — with Smith aboard — ran second after a late rally. Two weeks later, before an announced crowd of 85,495, he took the Preakness by one-half length, the first gelding to win since 1914. Moreover, he did it in his classic grinding style, picking off horses from 14 lengths back and even veering wide down the stretch to win in 1 minute, 56-3/5 seconds.
“I can see it like it was yesterday,” Smith said this week. “In the backstretch, he just wound up and reeled them in, one by one. That horse came from so far back that he didn’t have to worry about anyone passing him because he’d already passed everybody. And as he passed each one, he got stronger.”
Toward the end, Smith said, his mount seemed to toy with the runner-up, Cherokee Run.
“Prairie Bayou stayed just in front of that horse. He never did draw away,” the jockey said. “I guess he thought he’d done enough. Most of the time, he only won by as much as he had to.”
It was Smith’s first Triple Crown victory in eight tries. Afterward, he entered the winner’s circle with Prairie Bayou, who tossed his head from side to side as cameras whirred and the blanket of faux black-eyed susans was draped around his neck.
Meanwhile, in a horse ambulance nearby, another Preakness entrant, Union City, was breathing his last. The colt had broken an ankle during the race, narrowly avoiding a collision with Prairie Bayou; he was euthanized on the spot, the first fatality in a Triple Crown race since 1959.
Three weeks later, at the Belmont Stakes, Prairie Bayou met the same fate. On the backstretch, while running his typical race (10th of 13), his left foreleg snapped, pitching Smith onto the wet track. The jockey was uninjured but the horse staggered on more than 1/4 of a mile before being caught.
He had suffered a compound fracture. One-half hour later, a lethal injection ended Prairie Bayou’s life. Smith wasn’t there at the end; long after, he would deftly deflect questions about the tragedy that occurred on the day that the first female jockey, Julie Krone, won a Triple Crown race.
“When it comes to that day, I like to think about Julie winning,” Smith would say. “It’s too sad to think about the other thing.”
Years later, Krone handed Smith a snapshot of himself astride a 2-year-old Prairie Bayou at Saratoga (N.Y.) Race Course.
“He loved that horse,” Krone said then.
Posthumously, Prairie Bayou was named the United States champion 3-year-old. He won seven of 12 career starts and finished second three times. And the last race he finished, the 118th Preakness, was his greatest triumph.
“That day will always hold a special place in my heart,” Smith said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Childs Walker contributed to this article.