BALTIMORE — The first waves of angst hit Vinery manager Tom Ludt before Friesan Fire even reached the wire in the 135th 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 their homebred 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 in the Derby, Ludt 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 entry of Kentucky Oaks winner Rachel Alexandra into the Preakness Stakes, 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 betting favorite at odds of 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-owed 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 runner-up 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 Friesan Fire's left 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, the colt's ailing hoof 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."
As if sensing others had moved in to steal the spotlight, Friesan Fire provided a slight reminder on Tuesday why he was the Derby favorite less than two weeks ago.
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 Saturday a likelihood — a key factor considering Friesan Fire's 71/4-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 to lay off of.
"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."