There must be a moment before a man gets struck by lightning when he says, “Man, I shouldn’t be out here…”
Standing on the turf course, looking toward the Pimlico grandstand Saturday afternoon, I was thinking that thought. Lightning had already appeared beyond the backstretch, it seemed like a long way away, but now, looking over the grandstand, there was no doubt, it was coming. My radio cohorts, safe and secure (well, as safe and secure as you can feel in a wooden hut on a roof) described the weather, “…under battleship gray skies…sprinkling…we could be in for a storm.”
I listened. And scoffed. It had long since turned from “If it rains…” to “when it rains…” It had long since turned from “we might get some thunderstorms…” to “when we get thunderstorms…” Earlier, Maryland Jockey Club’s Georganne Hale had given me the inside scoop of when to head for higher ground, “When you see the Geico plane leave, we’re in trouble.”
When she said it, I looked up at the plane pulling the Geico banner. It circled, confidently. I felt relieved.
Minutes later, American Pharoah walked from the stakes barn, the first horse to turn right along the dirt track and head to the inside paddock, just the horse and two grooms, no hype, no entourage. Trainer Bob Baffert trailed well behind him, arousing the crowd but not his horses, as the Derby winner walked well ahead and the Kentucky Derby third Dortmund walked well behind the Hall of Fame trainer, his son Bode and the rest of the team.
The sky was dark, menacing, the infield crowd funneled out, but the Geico plane was still flying.
And then it wasn’t.
As Preakness horses circled on the turf course, the plane had long disappeared. There was something disconcerting about an insurance company abandoning us in our hour of need. I held a microphone (wondering if it conducted electricity) and fondled a blue poncho in my pocket. It would be needed, it was just if I could wait until a commercial break to slide it over suit, ear piece and NBC Radio microphone flag. The wind went from blowing sideways to blowing from below. The rain began slowly, then steadily, then pelting, then lashing. Like a boy throwing sand at his sister and not getting caught.
It came in waves, torrents.
By then, eight 3-year-olds meandered on the turf course, handling the weather like mustangs on a prairie. American Pharoah seemed quiet, I couldn’t decide if that was a negative or a positive. He looked like a different horse from the one who pulled hard on the brass shank before the Derby. Around him, it looked like open mic night as Chuck Fipke and crew took photos of Tale Of Verve in the paddock, like they had won. Then the Bodhisattva crew did the same. I’ve never seen win photos taken before a race, the horses stood for the picture, like they were police horses in front of tourists in Times Square. If they only knew what was about to happen.
Thunder clapped as the horses flitted over the slop in front of the crowd, Firing Line hopped in the air at the sound, Gary Stevens clutching a handful of mane, promising his colt it was OK. Only in horse racing does a pilot reassure the plane in the moment of turbulence.
The track went from fast to sloppy, quickly. Water pooled on top of the dirt track, like a Gore-Tex commercial, swirling and stewing, as the eight horses galloped into the rain on the way to the start.
Victor Espinoza, if he had any question about what he was going to do from the rail, changed his plan. And then American Pharoah worked the plan.
Splashing to the front from the rail, the Derby winner made sure the crowd, the world, loved the rain instead of cursed the rain. In this sport – any sport – you want reasons, not excuses. American Pharoah made sure there would be no excuses on Saturday, May 16, 2015. Triple Crowns are earned, American Pharoah earned the second leg, scampering to the lead and finishing it off with a 7-length romp. Yes, he went slowly. And, yes, there were excuses from others – Firing Line stumbled, Dortmund never traveled – but you can only eat what’s on your plate and American Pharoah did what he had to do.
As for the rest of us, we’re still drying out our shoes.