BALTIMORE: Strange things always seem to happen at the Preakness. A drunken fan runs onto the track and punches at speeding horses. Barbaro breaks down in 2006. A race day power outage costs Pimlico millions of dollars.
It's enough to make everyone hold their collective breath when the gates open Saturday for Big Brown's attempt at winning the second leg of the Triple Crown.
"I hope everything goes good. I hope everybody comes back good," trainer Nick Zito said Wednesday. "That's what everybody wants, for the horses to come back safe. Unfortunately, these big races have been under the microscope."
Two weeks ago, Big Brown cruised to an easy victory in the Kentucky Derby, finishing 4 3/4 lengths ahead of the filly Eight Belles.
She crossed the finish line and was galloping out toward the backstretch when she suddenly collapsed, breaking both front ankles. Eight Belles was euthanized by injection on the track, stunning more than 157,000 fans in the stands and millions watching on television.
Her gallant effort and tragic death will undoubtedly cast a shadow over the Preakness, where Barbaro broke down early in the 2006 race and was euthanized eight months later after a long battle with laminitis.
"The issue with Eight Belles is going to come up over and over this week," said Zito, who will saddle Stevil in the Preakness.
Now in its 133rd running, a year younger than the venerable Kentucky Derby, the Preakness attracts about 100,000 people and generates most of Maryland racing's yearly funding.
Big Brown is the early 1-2 favorite, and drew the No. 7 post position in the 13-horse field.
So providing a safe dirt racing surface and letting the horses do the talking through their performances is Pimlico's goal Saturday, one of the sport's four major days that attract a national spotlight.
"Safety is always first," said Glen Kozak, who oversees maintenance of Pimlico's dirt and turf tracks. "The condition of the racetrack for that day is very, very important. You never know what can happen that day."
In 1999, a drunken fan burst out of the infield and onto the track several hundred yards from the finish line of a race on the Preakness undercard. Horses charged by on both sides of the man without hitting him. He punched at two horses as they galloped past him, forcing jockey Jorge Chavez to pull up wagering favorite Artax.
Money was refunded to fans who bet on Artax; the fan avoided jail time but was given a suspended sentence and probation.
"The Preakness is known as the party race of the Triple Crown races," said jockey Jeremy Rose, who won in 2005 with Afleet Alex and will ride Icabad Crane on Saturday. "That's why a lot of that stuff happens. But most of it is just coincidental."
At the 1998 Preakness, a fire in a transformer near the track triggered a power outage that shut down betting windows about 90 minutes before the big race, costing Pimlico nearly $2 million.
In 2005, Afleet Alex and Rose were cut off by Scrappy T in the stretch turn. The horses clipped heels in a frightening collision and Afleet Alex was forced nearly to his knees, drawing a collective gasp from the crowd. Incredibly, he regained his footing, tragedy was averted and Afleet Alex went on to victory.
"I just figured we were going down and that's all there was to it," Rose recalled. "Then he happened to pop up underneath me and he ended up pulling away from the best 3-year-olds they could put together. It was a testament to how good he was."
The following year, Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro broke down after leaving the starting gate in full view of the grandstand, where shocked fans wept at the sight of him struggling to stay off his shattered right hind leg.
Kozak was one of the first track workers to reach Barbaro and jockey Edgar Prado.
"We take a lot of pride in how that was handled and what we were able to do with that horse and to get him up to New Bolton (clinic)," Kozak said. "That's one of the freak accidents. None of the other horses in that race or that day had any issues."
Last year, a horse broke his right front leg while leading in a turf race and was euthanized on the track, shocking fans awaiting the start of the Preakness.
Kozak and his crew were busy Wednesday preparing the dirt track for three consecutive days of racing that begin Thursday. The 37-year-old superintendent, readying for his fourth Preakness, has brought in a third horse ambulance for Pimlico's biggest day. It features a hydraulic lift that makes it easier to load an injured horse instead of making the animal go up a ramp or a step.
"We have a very good reputation for how safe a racetrack this is and our numbers prove that. Maryland has always been known for a very good surface," Kozak said. "Whether it's the Preakness, the Pimlico Special or one of the cheaper races, it's a consistent racetrack."
Tractors harrow the 70-foot wide dirt surface — composed of sand, silt and clay — to maintain a uniform depth. Then a rubber-tired roller with weights on it goes over the dirt three times to pack down the surface and keep water from penetrating it in what is known as sealing the track. Dirt tracks drain horizontally, with water spilling off the inside and outside. The newer synthetic tracks drain vertically.
Between now and Saturday, Kozak consults a meteorologist and watches TV forecasts.
"I pay more attention to The Weather Channel than I do to my family at this point," he said. "Mother Nature, it can hurt you or help you."
Pimlico's one-mile oval with its tight turns has a reputation for favoring speed horses that go to the lead.
"The track doesn't get souped up for a big day," Kozak said. "The best thing is to keep the track consistent and that's what we strive to do."
Rick Dutrow Jr., who trains Big Brown and started his career at Maryland's tracks, has criticized Pimlico's surface.
"The track's been too hard at Pimlico forever. It's so hard and fast all the time it usually favors speed," he said. "It looks like it's going to favor our horse, but I would much rather be running on a safe, fast, dry track. I hope that they don't have it packed down where they're hoping for a track record. It's stupid."
Kozak hates hearing those kind of comments, even though his job is subject to constant second-guessing.
"It's just like football players playing on Astroturf or natural fields. Every trainer has their own idea," he said. "You can't get swayed by a trainer's criticism or comment on a racetrack, you just have to keep it consistent."
He noted that trainers often blame the track surface when perhaps other factors were responsible for a poor performance or a breakdown, such as training methods, a horse's nutrition, breeding and breaking as a yearling or its age when it began racing.
"It doesn't always go back to the racetrack (surface)," Kozak said.
Zito won the 1996 Preakness with Louis Quatorze and is a proponent of dirt over synthetic surfaces, which have mitigated breakdowns but caused bone, soft tissue and hind-end injuries.
"I broke the track record here one day with Louis Quatorze, so it's OK," he said about Pimlico's surface. "No problems. They've got a good superintendent here."
Kozak jokes that there's no manual to consult on how a racing strip should be. He watches the time of races, the horses running over it and their morning workouts.
"If horses are winning from different locations on the track, whether they're on the front end or coming off the pace, and the horses are coming back from the race OK, you know you've done a good job," he said.
AP Sports Writer Dan Gelston, AP Sports Writer Will Graves in Louisville, Ky., and AP freelance writer Mike Farrell contributed to this report.