BALTIMORE — It was the oddest place to witness death.
Men came to Pimlico Race Course wearing bright dress shirts, bow ties and trousers held up by suspenders. Women wore stunning dresses, and their clothing only seemed to complement their meticulously selected hats. Rapper Fetty Wap performed. Alcohol flowed. Betting money was tossed around like balls thrown to win state fair prizes. Even as the rain turned Saturday into a muddy mess, the Preakness Stakes seemed like beautiful, gluttonous American fun.
They died competing on the undercard of this Triple Crown race day, two tragedies in the first four starts, two fatalities muted by the anticipation of late-afternoon grandeur.
Their names, in case anyone cares in the aftermath of Exaggerator conquering nemesis Nyquist in the 141st Preakness Stakes: Homeboykris and Pramedya. Homeboykris was a 9-year-old, Maryland-bred gelding and a former Kentucky Derby entrant. Pramedya was a 4-year-old filly just five starts into her career. Her owners were Roy and Gretchen Jackson, the same couple who watched 2006 Kentucky Derby champion Barbaro break his leg on this Preakness track 10 years ago. Barbaro died eight months later.
That day, I can remember it with vivid detail. It was my first Preakness, and I hadn’t been back until Saturday. The afternoon was magnificent: sunny and with skies so clear you almost could see the expectations that people had for Barbaro. He was the horse. He had won the Derby by 6½ lengths, the largest margin in 60 years. He might have been the best contender that horse racing had in that 37-year Triple Crown drought. He was awesome.
And then he was gone.
That’s the worst of this sport, an elephant often ignored on its best days, a reality that can surface at any time and for a number of reasons. The spindly legs of these 1,000-pound animals can only take so much pounding, and on Saturday, Pramedya suffered an open fracture to the cannon bone on her front left leg and had to be euthanized on the track. Like most of the equine body, the heart is a remarkable, massive, powerful organ, but of course, there are challenges to keeping it healthy and unexpected problems occur. And on Saturday, after winning the opening race, Homeboykris left the winner’s circle and collapsed about 100 yards later. Chris Campitelli, whose father, Francis, trains Homeboykris, wrote a Twitter post that the horse suffered an “apparent” heart attack, but the horse will undergo a necropsy to be certain.
“Homeboykris hasn’t taken a bad step since we’ve had him,” Campitelli wrote. “Owner claimed him to assure he went to good home after race career. Freak accident.”
Five hours before the Preakness, the deaths created a somber mood. By the end of the day, Exaggerator’s triumph had engulfed the despair. Horses die; the next race starts. The sport moves on without significant delay, which is strangely normal most of the time.
But then it happens during a Triple Crown event, when the audience is larger and more diverse in interests, and the reaction intensifies. The general public shakes its head and pounds its fist over the many issues, including suspicions of animal abuse, that make this sport polarizing. PETA releases a statement calling for the horses’ owners to be transparent about their veterinary records and the medications the thoroughbreds had taken in the past few weeks.
What happens tomorrow, though? The issue vanishes. The memories of these horses fade. Horses die; people move on.
Not many remember Helwan, a 4-year-old French colt. He died at Belmont Park less than three hours before American Pharoah won the Triple Crown last June. Not many know the statistic that 1.62 horses died every 1,000 starts in 2015, according to data collected by The Jockey Club. The organization was proud to point out that the deaths were down 14 percent from the previous year. But numerous other studies have shown that we’re still talking about roughly 1,000 thoroughbreds dying most years.
There are plenty of things to appreciate about horse racing, especially when responsible owners and trainers love and care for their racehorses appropriately. But then there are days like this one, 10 years after Barbaro died, that remind you that fancy clothing and pretty hats can’t cover up the fact that the sport has a cruel side.
“It’s deflating,” said Sal Sinatra, the vice president and general manager of The Maryland Jockey Club. “You go through so many steps to make sure the horses are okay, between vet checks and jogging them in the morning and feeling them and flexing them and all that. Things do happen, but it’s almost to the point where you want to walk them through an X-ray machine before they come over to make sure it’s nothing that even the trainer isn’t aware of. Because you have a small fracture, you can’t see it . . . if it’s not . . . ”
Sinatra’s voice trailed off several times when he talked about the deaths. Normally, when he speaks to the media on Preakness day, he’s there to talk about how well Pimlico did. He’s there to talk about the record 135,256 fans who attended. He’s there to talk about selling out suites and to celebrate all that’s right about the event. This time, the conversation was complicated.
“This is the only time we’re part of the mainstream media,” Exaggerator trainer Keith Desormeaux said. “It’s called an American classic. Those are some strong words.”
Desormeaux said those words in celebration.
In mourning, the spotlight on a great day turned tragic might have made an even stronger statement.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.