BALTIMORE – This is the story of two horses, one ridden by a jockey and the other riderless. It is the story of more than 131,000 people gathered at a racetrack built in another time and still there, clinging to relevance in the public eye and in big important boardrooms near to and far from its rusted underbelly. It is the story of horses that live and horses that do not, and the sadness and pain that come with the latter. It is the story of a sport that fell into controversy in the winter of the year in California and veered into the surreal on the first Saturday in May in Kentucky. And it is the story of a sport that also came to Maryland this week for the 144th running of the Preakness, in search of relief and the cleansing breath that would come from a cleanly run race, a deserving champion and chance to move haltingly forward.
So it was in the slanting shadows of a brilliant spring evening (and as the ancient plumbing at Pimlico Race Track decayed in real time) that War of Will won the Preakness. He had been considered one of the best of his generation not two months ago, but ran poorly in a prep race and then was caught up in the Kentucky Derby’s quarter pole rodeo, a moment that lives on today in the legal system (and beyond) and which either did, or did not, cost him victory in the most important horse race in America. He ran every step of the Preakness’s 1 3/16 miles with his withers pinned to the rail, the shortest way around, and bounded away to victory by 1 ¼ lengths over Everfast, the second-longest shot (29–1) in the field.
This was an outcome that might have fully rescued a Preakness that had been diminished by the absence of the Kentucky Derby winner for the first time in 23 years, and by the absence of the first four finishers in the Derby for the first time in 58 years. War of Will had been a potential Derby favorite before inexplicably running ninth in the Louisiana Derby, his last race before Kentucky. He ran courageously from the horrific inside post position in Kentucky and seemed poised to threaten Maximum Security in the homestretch before the bumping incident that resulted in Maximum Security’s disqualification—the first in Derby history for an incident in the race—and the elevation of 65–1 longshot Country House to first place. Subsequently, Country House got sick and did not start in the Preakness (and will not start in the Belmont) and Maximum Security’s owner, Gary West, has filed a lawsuit that seeks to overturn his horse’s disqualification.
There is little doubt that War of Will (who went off at 6–1, third choice in the field) is a deserving winner and now stands alongside—or in front off—Maximum Security in the three-year-old world. "I just wanted a fair shot, that’s all I wanted," said War of Will’s trainer, Mark Casse. He looked back to the aftermath of the Derby, when many pundits suggested that incident between Maximum Security had not cost War of Will the Derby, and that he would not have won under any circumstances. "I just felt like there was so much written," said Casse. "So much said that our horse never had a [chance], he wasn’t going to win. I felt bad. I felt bad for him. In the Derby, I’d like to think if it wasn’t for the incident, it would have been an interesting race down the lane." (War of Will is likely to run the June 8 Belmont Stakes, Maximum Security is uncertain, but by no means likely).
And that might have been all of it. Sweet relief for racing. But there are demons that have held horse racing in a hammerlock throughout 2019, and they would not let go so easily. Not here and not yet.
To review: Between Dec. 24 and March 31, a total of 23 thoroughbred horses died after suffering catastrophic breakdowns during training or racing at Santa Anita racetrack in Southern California. The sport incurred intense scrutiny (from media, animal rights activists and others) that led to legislative changes involving medication, whips and transparency. All of this left the sport bruised and staggered. Healing had begun when, on the Friday before the Preakness, a filly named Congrats Gal suffered a heart attack and died just past the finish line of the Miss Preakness Stakes. Earlier that day, a 24th horse had died at Santa Anita (it’s fair to call this death the 24th of the Santa Anita season, but also fair to call it the first in more than six weeks). Old wounds were re-opened.
Four hours before post time for the Preakness, Belinda Stronach, CEO of the Stronach Group, which owns both Santa Anita and Pimlico and several other tracks, stood on a balcony overlooking the track. "There’s always more we can do when it comes to horse safety and rider safety," said Stronach. "But I think we’ve accomplished a lot in two months at Santa Anita." (There is debate in the industry over whether rules changes involving medication and whips and other issues are most responsible for stopping the rash of deaths at Santa Anita, or whether it was largely a halt to winter rains and a re-making of the racing surface. That debate is ongoing).
Stronach is at the center of not just the horse safety issue, but also the ongoing issue of whether the Preakness will remain at Pimlico or move to Laurel Race Track, 20 miles away, but outside the city of Baltimore, where the Preakness is a civic institution (or at least an expected major annual party). "We are committed to racing in Maryland," Stronach said. "And we are committed to Pimlico in 2020." As she spoke these words outside an air-conditioned infield tent where race-goers dined on shrimp and roast beef and drank cocktails from tall glasses, many of the toilets and other water supplies were not functioning in the Pimlico grandstand. Other similar problems have beset the toe-tagged Pimlico facility in recent years.
All of this is plenty on racing’s plate. Seemingly. But the Preakness presented another bizarre diversion. As the starting gate opened, Bodexpress—who had also been involved tangentially in the Derby incident, because of course he had—reared up and dumped jockey John Velazquez onto the ground. "He got excited in there," said Velazquez, "He knocked me against the side of the gate, and then my feet were out of the irons. First jump out of the gate, he went sideways, so I had no chance. No chance." Velazquez was not injured. (It’s also worth noting that video of the starting gate incident showed that an assistant starter was still holding Bodexpress’s bridle when the gate opened; ordinarily, the starter would not open the gate if an assistant starter was still holding a bridle).
As the field rolled away from the starting gate, Bodexpress continued to run, down the homestretch and into the first turn. Onto the backstretch Bodexpress trailed 11 of the horses in the field, but led two others. Slowly, he seemed to work his way from the middle of the track into the pack. "That situation is nerve-wracking," said two-time Triple Crown-winning trainer Bob Baffert, whose horse, Improbable, was made the 2-1 favorite in the Preakness, but also acted up in the starting gate and finished sixth in the 13-horse field. "You’ve got to be careful. Because some horses in that situation will try to win."
It appeared that Bodexpress was that type of horse. As the field moved through the second turn and approached the top of the stretch—approximately where the trouble took place in the Derby—Bodexpress fell into last place, but kept running, outside the field. Enter 47-year-old Kaymarie Kreidel, a former jockey who has been working as a full-time outrider at Pimlico and Laurel for seven years. Outriders are responsible for helping control thoroughbreds both before and after races, and in rare cases, during the race. Kreidel was responsible for Bodexpress. When she saw Velazquez unseated, Kreidel said she thought He’s mine.
As Bodexpress reached the stretch, Kreidel gunned her horse, an 11-year-old named Hunter (he had raced under the name Witch Hunter and had been bred by—you can’t make this up—Belinda Stronach’s father, Frank, founder of The Stronach Group and with whom Belinda is battling for control of the company), but couldn’t quickly catch Bodexpress. "I had to back off because I didn’t want to interfere in the race," said Kreidel. Bodexpress ran past the finish line and then circled back toward the head of the stretch, weaving in and out of handlers, media and other horses gathered near the finish line. "At that point, he was just playing games," said Kreidel. "But he could have run somebody over."
Kreidel finally caught and secured Bodexpress as he came back toward the starting point of the race. "My job is to catch the horse," said Kreidel, as she sat atop Hunter after the race, her face flushed from the effort. After she caught Bodexpress, the three-year-old dragged Kreidel and Hunter back past the finish line at high speed. Two weeks after the mind-bending 22-minute wait between the finish of the Kentucky Derby and the historic disqualification of Maximum Security, another strange tableau unfolded near the finish line of a Triple Crown race.
Moments later, jockey Tyler Gaffalione returned War of Will to the finish line and steered him to the infield victory ceremony. Two weeks earlier Gaffalione had been roundly criticized for not claiming foul against Maximum Security and jockey Luis, when two other less-affected riders had. (Casse said that Gaffalione had been "shaken" after the incident and also said that he did not, in the moment, comprehend the seriousness of the incident that led to Maximum Security’s disqualification). "This wasn’t anything to do with redemption or trying to prove something," said Gaffalione. "It’s just, the horse deserved it."
The sport deserved it, too: A gifted winner, clearly the best, without qualification. But not without stress and not without distractions to hurry the heart.