Harrington has eye on the prize

BALTIMORE -- If Mike Harrington had his way, there would be no pesky reporters snooping around the barn in the days before the Preakness. Things would be quiet at Pimlico Race Course -- just a man and his horse, then a race and a win.

Reporters ask inane questions. They put you on the spot. They write stories or run news bits and don't get their facts straight.

With a horse like this, your name gets out there, and people keep coming around asking stupid questions and printing stupid answers.

-- Mike Harrington, trainer of Creative Cause

Train a nice horse like Creative Cause, for instance. That nice horse becomes a good horse by winning the San Felipe Stakes over Bodemeister (now the Preakness favorite) and just barely missing the Santa Anita Derby by a nostril to eventual Kentucky Derby winner I'll Have Another, a contender he already bested during the 2-year-old season.

This good horse sends you on your way to the Run for the Roses, gets the widest trip out of all 20 contenders, travels 29 feet more than I'll Have Another, 70 feet more than Bodemeister and still closes to get up to third in the stretch before being passed to register a game fifth. He's beaten just three lengths, and his adjusted margin actually suggests he would have finished half a length in front given the same trip as the winner.

Then over to the second jewel of the Triple Crown you go, where they make this horse the 6-1 third choice for the Preakness along with Derby fourth-place finisher Went the Day Well. No wonder everyone wants information -- how old you are (71), how long you've been doing this (full time since 1993), and how your contender is training (great).

"With a horse like this, your name gets out there, and people keep coming around asking stupid questions and printing stupid answers," the trainer said Thursday morning outside the Pimlico Stakes Barn, a giveaway twinkle in his eye barely visible beneath his big-brimmed cowboy hat.

The attention is inevitable, but that doesn't mean you have to like it.

Call him cantankerous, stoic, unimpressed by what he terms the "hoopla" of the Triple Crown trail. Cut from the same cloth as Bob Knight and John Tortorella, the man who told reporters he expected them to ask "reasonably intelligent questions" before the Derby doesn't mind if he comes across as slightly intimidating, if his reputation is a little grouchy. In fact, he rather enjoys it.

"Running in a race like the Preakness is nice, but I don't get caught up in all this B.S., to be honest with you," he remarked.

Harrington was in rare form at the Derby two weeks ago, offing one-liners like "Baffert trains 15 good horses in a year; I have one good horse every 15 years" and "Those big-time trainers will finish up this Triple Crown season and look forward to next year's crop, but I don't have a 'next year's crop.'"

Now he just wants to prepare his steel-gray colt for this race undisturbed. If you ask him why he does things a certain way -- shipping his horse back to California the day after the Derby before coming East again on Wednesday, for instance -- he will tell you he couldn't find a page in the (nonexistent) training manual that tells you exactly what to do.

"[Doug] O'Neill came here the next day and a lot of people made a big deal about that. I went back to California and it's 'Oh, that's never been done before!'" he said. "To go from Churchill back is only about a four-hour plane ride, and I don't think it bothered him much at all. Although coming here was a longer ship, he seems bright and happy."

The son of Giant's Causeway is "a good-feelin' horse," as Harrington describes him.

"He's very nice around the barn, but he likes to buck and play when he's coming off the racetrack," the trainer said. "He used to want to bite my pony all the time, but he's gotten over that. This horse has matured, but of course I guess you'd expect him to mature since he's gotten older."

While some questioned Harrington's decision to wheel back into the mile and three-sixteenths Preakness, his highly talented colt's past performances put him at the forefront of any discussion regarding this season's 3-year-old crop. Before the Derby, Creative Cause never finished out of the top three in eight starts. He won four times, finished second twice and posted two thirds.

"He's the best horse I ever trained," Harrington said.

But this old-time horseman isn't looking to make a career out of a Classic victory. A horse named Swiss Yodeler, who won the Hollywood Futurity in 1996, already did that for him.

"Even if this horse would win a Triple Crown race, I'm not going to get anything out of it businesswise, and I'm fine with that," he said. "Out at the Barretts sale, all the high-priced horses went to Doug O'Neill and Bob Baffert, and I don't even care about that except to make the point that at this time in my career, this horse isn't going to make as much impact as Swiss Yodeler did back then."

Harrington isn't suffering for lack of business. A former high school rodeo cowboy who rode broncs and bulls in Bend, Ore., he shoed horses and got a veterinarian's license to help treat the animals, then worked his way up and made a solid name for himself with a 45-horse stable based in Southern California. The responsibility of those runners weighs upon his mind almost as heavily as the responsibility of training a Preakness contender.

"My wife says, 'These are the big races; you've got to focus on this horse,' and that's true, but I've got owners with all those other horses who are paying good money too," he remarked. "I'm not comfortable going away and having some guy call me up and say, 'How's my horse doing?' and having to tell him, 'Well, you know, I really don't know because I haven't seen him for two weeks.'"

Is he at least attempting to embrace the Triple Crown experience now that the drama of a first-time Derby run is finished? Barely. Harrington said he finds training toward the Preakness more laid-back and enjoyable than running a horse on the first Saturday in May, but don't think he's going to wax poetic for you.

"To me, the purse is immaterial and the hoopla is immaterial. I'm just trying to win a race," he said.

Claire Novak is an Eclipse Award-winning journalist whose coverage of the thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets. You can reach her via her website.