BALTIMORE — The first waves of angst hit Vinery Stables manager Tom Ludt before Friesan Fire reached the wire in the Kentucky Derby. And from there, the anguish only got worse.
But even as he experienced the disappointment of watching Vinery's first Derby starter finish next to last, Ludt didn't want the enormity of what the colt had accomplished to go unnoticed.
"On the ride home I said to (Vinery owner) Tom Simon, 'The memory you have of your first Derby horse is he went off as the Derby favorite,' " Ludt recalled. "There are 30,000 something foals born each year and we went off as the Derby favorite."
Initially, those words were meant to provide solace.
But in the aftermath of Friesan Fire's 18th-place finish, he has had to remind more than a few people of the importance of that fact.
While the racing world has fallen over itself tracking the exploits of upset Derby winner Mine That Bird and the running of Rachel Alexandra in the Preakness Stakes today, the horse many thought would end up wearing the blanket of roses two weeks ago has fallen slightly under the radar.
Sent off as the favorite at 7-2, Friesan Fire endured a troubled trip in the Derby that saw him — among other things — lose a chunk of flesh instead of snagging a piece of immortality.
The three-time graded stakes winner, who is co-owned by Vinery and Rick Porter, left the track with blood streaming from his left front hoof after getting stepped on coming out of the gate.
As the mud was washed off the bay colt, a rug-burn-like cut was also discovered on his right hock and — in one of the oddest findings — strips of bandages from runnerup Pioneerof the Nile had somehow become lodged between the hoof and the shoe of Friesan Fire's left front foot.
"You know it was a really hard day for me. It's tough to get there and then have that happen to you," Ludt said. "But that's racing, it happened, and I make no excuses.
"I think he has (been forgotten about) a bit, but … he's a good horse and we know that. We're going to draw a line through (the Derby) and hope to God we get lucky on Saturday."
Upon seeing the damage to the hoof, Ludt didn't think he would be ready for another race "in about a month or so." But with the aid of Eclipse, an ointment typically used by diabetic patients with slow-healing wounds, it came around quicker than his connections fathomed.
"I think part of the reason it healed so fast is he's just so healthy right now," trainer Larry Jones said. "I think that says a lot about his health factor because I've had these things drag out for weeks on certain horses, so I think that's a testament to how healthy and how good he's doing."
Like Jones, Bob Baffert is a confident trainer. Pioneerof the Nile, an early favorite, was in front coming down the stretch at Churchill Downs, and for a few moments the Hall of Famer thought he had his fourth Derby victory.
"It just took the air out of us," he said.
Baffert's horse is the second choice today and jockey Garrett Gomez and Pioneerof the Nile figure to be stalking the pace from an outside position.
"The questions that weren't answered in the Derby we're going to find out in the Preakness," said Baffert, back in the race for the first time in six years.
As if sensing others had moved in to steal the spotlight, however, Friesan Fire provided a slight reminder on Tuesday why he was the Derby favorite.
With regular rider Gabriel Saez up, Friesan Fire rocketed through a 5-furlong workout at Pimlico in a bullet :58.40. "I think his work kind of re-enlightened a few people," Ludt said.
As was the case Derby week, certain elements leading up to the Preakness seem to be playing in Friesan Fire's favor.
Rain in the forecast makes the possibility of an off track a likelihood — a key factor considering Friesan Fire's 7¼-length win in the Louisiana Derby came over a sloppy surface.
And with the presence of front-runners Big Drama and Rachel Alexandra in the field, there should be no shortage of pace for Friesan Fire.
"Hopefully he's going to rebound; he wasn't the Derby favorite for no reason," Jones said. "Hopefully he's going to live up to it and do what he's supposed to do."