Sidelines with John Clay

Just think of how much fun the Preakness could have been

Kentucky Derby winner Country House to skip Preakness

Country House the surprise winner of the controversial Kentucky Derby, will not race in the Preakness.
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Country House the surprise winner of the controversial Kentucky Derby, will not race in the Preakness.

Talk about fun-killers.

Given the still-flaming Kentucky Derby controversy, the Preakness Stakes on May 18 promised to be must-see TV. Think of it: Maximum Security vs. Country House. The initial winner of Kentucky Derby 145 vs. the declared winner of Kentucky Derby 145. The aggrieved victim vs. the fortunate benefactor. The rematch. Let the best colt win.

“I think rivalries are good,” Country House’s trainer Bill Mott said Sunday. “But I’m not sure this is Affirmed vs. Alydar.”

Maybe it could have been were it not for owner Gary West announcing Monday that Maximum Security would be skipping the Preakness. That was followed by this letdown of a tweet from the Daily Racing Form’s Jay Privman on Tuesday: “Country House out of Preakness, per Mott, who said he’s coughing, “acting like he’s going to get sick.”

Now we’re the ones who are sick. Just when the public is talking horse racing — debating the stewards’ decision to disqualify Maximum Security and anoint Country House last Saturday’s winner — the sport’s major players won’t be around for the second leg of the Triple Crown.

Not that we’re blaming the horses, mind you. Maximum Security shipped Tuesday to Monmouth Park, where he’ll get a little R and R before hopefully a shot in the Belmont Stakes on June 8. Country House will either be at Churchill Downs or Belmont Park where hopefully he’ll make a quick recovery from whatever it is that ails him.

But talk about opportunity missed for a sport that should welcome every opportunity. After all, in the entire history of the world’s most famous race, the horse that crossed the finish line first had never had its number taken down because of a foul. Most of the racing community agreed with the stewards’ decision. But there were contrarians — the Washington Post’s Andy Beyer and five-time Derby-winning trainer Bob Baffert among them.

Gary West really disagreed. In a sour-grapes Monday morning appearance on NBC’s “Today” show, Maximum Security’s owner admitted that, well, all right, his horse did veer into the path of other horses. But, said West, Churchill Downs is a “greedy organization” that by having 20 horses in the race “risks horses’ lives and people’s lives to do that.”

Wait a minute. Did not West run two horses in this year’s Derby? Given his logic, wasn’t West endangering the lives of Maximum Security and Game Winner as well as jockeys Luis Saez and Joel Rosario? And this wasn’t West’s first rodeo, er Derby. He’s been running for the roses since 1993.

As for Baffert, he trains Game Winner, who ran sixth Saturday for Gary and Mary West. It’s not surprising he would stick up for his owners. Baffert did say he could see the reasoning behind the stewards’ decision. His point was that there is always a bumper-car element to the Derby.

The difference is where those misadventures take place. As Mott pointed out Sunday, his other Derby horse, Tacitus, was slammed in the first turn of the Wood Memorial. Since it was the first turn, however, Tacitus had plenty of time to recover. He not only recovered, he won the race.

“Those horses (Saturday) had no time to recover,” said Mott in reference to Long Range Toddy and Bodexpress, the two horses who almost came to a stop when Maximum Security bumped War of Will into them. “They lost all chance.”

Meanwhile, Pimlico may have lost its chance to go out with a bang. This could be the final Preakness at the crumbling edifice no one wants to spend the money to refurbish. The Stronach Group, Pimlico’s owners, seem set on moving the Preakness down the road to Laurel Race Course. Baltimore says it wants to keep the race, but so far the city hasn’t been willing to open its wallet.

Horse racing lost its big chance, too. Oh, there will be a curiosity factor to May 18. The absence of the two protagonists in the sport’s biggest drama will keep the debate going. But oh, what could have been.

Then again, fingers crossed, there’s always the Belmont.

Preakness Stakes

What: Second leg of the Triple Crown

When: 6:48 p.m. Saturday, May 18

Where: Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore

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