By his admission, the horse he owns "couldn't look any better," but Ahmed Zayat won't be running Kentucky Derby runner-up Nehro in the Preakness Saturday. So he owns a horse that is in perfect health and would be the second choice in a $1 million event that happens to be one of the most prestigious races in the world, but the colt won't be leaving his stall Saturday afternoon. Welcome to modern horse racing, the sport that has gone insane.
"He's a nice horse," Zayat told the Daily Racing Form, explaining why the colt will pass the race for the Belmont. "We want to protect the horse."
Zayat noted the Preakness would be Nehro's fourth start over an eight-week period. Not that long ago, a schedule like that would be considered kid's stuff. For 1948 Triple Crown winner Citation, the Preakness was his fifth start in 33 days, meaning he averaged more than one start a week.
The irony is that the Preakness is the one race that proves just how foolish this sort of thinking is. If horses needed to be "protected" in between the Derby and the Belmont and weren't meant to run back in two weeks, the history of the Preakness should be overrun with Derby starters that, tired and beaten up and running back way too soon, floundered miserably in Baltimore.
The exact opposite is the case. Since 1984, a horse that has started in the Derby has won every Preakness but three. And one of the exceptions is Rachel Alexandra (2009), who was coming back in two weeks and one day after her win in the Kentucky Oaks.
Fresh horses don't win the Preakness. Horses coming back two weeks after the Derby do.
Perhaps if there were a history of horses running in both the Derby and Preakness falling apart, then Zayat would have a point. There's not. Since 2007, 21 horses have started in both the Derby and Preakness and only two (Dublin and Zayat's Pioneerof the Nile) never ran again. Several of these horses did just fine afterward, including Curlin and Lookin at Lucky, who went on to earn championships.
During that same period of time, 17 horses skipped the Preakness after the Derby and pointed instead to the Belmont. Of those, two (Dunkirk and Denis of Cork) never raced again.
Sometimes skipping the Preakness works. Summer Bird did it and won the Belmont, and so did Jazil. Sometimes it doesn't. Ice Box came out of last year's Derby in terrific form and passed the Preakness for the Belmont. He ran miserably in the Belmont and was never again the same.
Trainer Nick Zito now concedes he made a mistake not running Ice Box in the Preakness, not going for a big prize when the horse was on top of his game, which is exactly the point. You only get one chance to run in a Preakness and to pass it with a horse that is, in the words of Zayat, coming off a post-Derby work that was "absolutely awesome" is nuts.
Nobody, Zayat included, knows how Nehro will be doing 3½ weeks from now when they run the Belmont. Who knows if he will even get there? The time to strike is now and the race to strike in is the Preakness.
But it won't happen. Not that any of this should come as a surprise. Nehro is being pampered because that's what we do now, pamper and baby horses because, well, that's just what we do.
* * *
I like the idea of running the Preakness on a Sunday. The same move worked this year at Gulfstream, where they switched the Florida Derby to Sunday and were rewarded with two big days, the Saturday before and Florida Derby Day itself. Unlike Kentucky Oaks Day, the Friday before the Preakness is a non-event and every attempt made by Pimlico to spice it up has failed. Turning the Preakness into a two-day affair starting on a Saturday is at least worth a try.
* * *
I have written a dozen or so columns over the years criticizing the Horse Racing Hall of Fame for its election procedures. At last, the Hall of Fame got it right. By changing the format so that the top four vote-getters, no matter which category they might be in, are elected,they fixed a broken system. All four future inductees, Jerry Hollendorfer, Sky Beauty, Open Mind and Safely Kept, are well deserving and in the case of the three aforementioned mares their election was way overdue. They were victims of a poorly thought out system where, previously, only one member from each category could get in.
Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact him at email@example.com.