Horse racing is a sport without a rider

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A pipe burst, so not all the toilets worked . The grandstands past which the horses parade en route from the barn are so decrepit, they were closed. The city of Baltimore is suing the owners of Pimlico Race Course, which is probably the second-most well known suit in the world of horse racing because the owner of the horse that was disqualified as the winner of the Kentucky Derby is fighting — in federal court — to get that decision overturned. On Friday afternoon, a horse collapsed after the finish of a race here. She died on the track.

That enough to capture the state of a sport and the venue that hosts one of its crown jewels? Well, if you thought you saw a riderless horse sprinting the wrong way — through a maze of animals and people, after the Preakness Stakes concluded — it wasn’t one too many black-eyed Susans. Fits right in, doesn’t it?

“I think we’ve covered bizarre already,” said Mark Casse, the trainer of War of Will. “This is the life we live, each and every day. We always have curveballs thrown at us on a constant basis.”

It’s worth noting that on a beautiful Saturday evening, War of Will won the Preakness. That information will be available in record books in perpetuity. Even 22 minutes afterward — the span of time in which stewards at Churchill Downs reviewed a violation on Maximum Security, who crossed the Kentucky Derby finish line first, and gave the victory to Country House — Saturday’s result stood. Chalk one up for normalcy.

Yet a question that better encapsulated the day — better than, “Is this redemption for War of Will, blocked by Maximum Security’s wayward trip in the Derby?” — was: Can a horse without a rider win a race?

The answer is no. But it doesn’t mean Bodexpress didn’t try.

“To him, this race was just a game,” Kaymarie Kreidel said from atop her horse, Hunter. “And I was unfortunately the one that ended the game for him.”

Kreidel wasn’t supposed to be a character Saturday. Yet here she was, barreling down Pimlico’s front stretch as War of Will’s owners and trainers and hangers-on began their celebration on the track. Bodexpress was on the loose, so Kreidel had one thought: “He’s mine. That horse is mine.”

In the aftermath of Maximum Security straying wide in the final turn of the Kentucky Derby, there was little consensus other than this: Thank whoever you pray to that no one — man or horse — was hurt because it could have been the sport’s most calamitous on-track incident.

That’s saying something for this sport, which is, without hyperbole, in peril. From December to March, 23 horses at famed Santa Anita Park in California died. Another died Friday, the same day the filly Congrats Gal collapsed after a race here. So many of the 131,256 people that came to Pimlico on Saturday had some knowledge of these tragedies, and if they didn’t, they had time to check their phones while they waited in line for the bathrooms, some of which were compromised because of a burst pipe two days earlier.

The Stronach Group, which owns both Pimlico and Santa Anita (in addition to other tracks), is tussling with both the city and the state to move the race from the only home it has ever known. I’m not an expert — or even a novice, frankly — in horse racing. But I covered baseball at RFK Stadium. I know a venue that’s no longer suitable for hosting major events (notice I refrained from saying “dump”), and Pimlico is no longer suitable for hosting major events.

“If it doesn’t move forward at all, it’s the worst, right?” said Tim Ritvo, the chief operating officer of the Stronach Group. “It’s status quo, and I don’t think anybody wants that.”

So there’s the backdrop to this year’s Preakness: a local crisis involving this city’s marquee sporting event — one that dates back on this very site to 1873 — that folds into the national crisis that encompasses the entire sport. Oh, and both Maximum Security and Country House — the two celebrities involved in the Derby controversy that thrust the sport to territory it rarely occupies, the national discourse — skipped the Preakness.

And then John Velazquez, an experienced jockey who has won four Triple Crown races, got into the gate aboard Bodexpress.

“He was just not behaving good in the gate,” Velazquez said. “He was not settling really well. He got me against a wall in the gate, and obviously when the doors opened, I was kind of up like right from the start. I kind of jumped sideways, and I had my feet out of the irons, so I lost my balance — and I went off.”

So did Bodexpress, running the race without a rider. This would be funny if it wasn’t so dangerous. Casse was focused on War of Will but couldn’t help but notice the jockey in the dirt, the horse off on his own.

“I used to always tell my riders, ‘Good luck, good luck,’ until a few years ago we had a horse go down and get hurt,” Casse said. “And from that point on, I always just say, ‘Be safe.’ ”

Enter Kreidel. For 16 years, the 47-year-old was a jockey all over Maryland. She has served as a full-time “outrider” — the men and women atop horses who are entrusted with the safety of both jockeys and horses during races — for seven years at both Pimlico and Laurel.

She wanted to secure Bodexpress before the first turn. The horse preferred to run the race. So Kreidel was caught. She couldn’t insert herself to corral the wayward horse and interfere with the race — even though the horse, galloping alongside the field, was by definition interfering with it.

“A loose horse can cause other loose horses and cause accidents,” Kreidel said. “. . . When they’re loose, it’s kind of like the light switch turns off, and they don’t’ really think about anything but just running free and wild.”

A mile and 3/16ths is the trip the field took, and there was Bodexpress the whole way. Here’s the kicker, though: As people began to filter back on the track, he turned the other way and barreled back down the front stretch. It must have looked some combination of thrilling and silly from afar. It was, on the track, some combination of chaotic and scary.

Kreidel eventually thought she had the horse pinned against the rail. Problem: She reached, and he took off — the other way. The chase continued at full gallop, a wild West scene in what’s supposed to be a prim-and-proper world. The hero: Kreidel, who swooped in and roped the horse.

“I saw a shot, and I gunned it, and I grabbed it,” Kreidel said. “And then I just had to weave in between the people and the horses because it was a bit crowded.”

Horse racing seems a bit chaotic at the moment. Sometimes that’s tragic. On Saturday, it seemed more typical. This old track has its history. But in what might be one of the last Preaknesses staged here, 2019 will be the year a horse ran the race without a rider, and that fit in with the current state of the sport.

For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.

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