05/14/2008 12:00AM

Oddest alibi - how about hives?


For those convinced the road from the Kentucky Derby to the Preakness Stakes is strewn with nothing but roses and fake black-eyed susans, consider the following journeys:

If you were Dark Star or Proud Clarion, you were lucky to win the Derby anyway, so you could have no beef when the real Native Dancer or the real Damascus showed up in Baltimore.

If you were Chateaugay or Cannonade, you earned your Derby stripes, but with cleaner trips in the Preakness, Candy Spots and Little Current proved best.

If you were Riva Ridge, it rained, and your graceful Derby win was drowned behind Bee Bee Bee in the Pimlico mud.

If you were Bold Forbes, they got wise to your game, and your unassailed opening Derby half of 45 4/5 seconds was a stroll in the park compared with the 45 flat under pressure from Honest Pleasure in the Preakness.

If you were a delicate lad like Swale, or Sea Hero, the Derby was a gut-busting experience and two weeks was just not enough time to top up the tank.

And if you were Sunny's Halo, you got hives.

A quarter of a century ago, fresh from victories in the Arkansas Derby and the Kentucky Derby, Sunny's Halo was the toast of the racing world. Brimming with charisma, his bright red coat blinged out with white stockings and a formidable blaze, this was a Sports Illustrated cover boy and a superstar on the rise. Owned by Canadian stockbroker David Foster, Sunny's Halo turned in a deadly efficient piece of business to win the Derby, lighting up a gray and drizzly Louisville day with a two-length win over the Damascus colt Desert Wine.

But the physical stress of running hard in the Derby can manifest itself in any number of ways. The most harrowing consequences were on display this year, when Eight Belles gave everything she had just to finish second. Some horses rebound quickly, while some are never the same. Just to be different, Sunny's Halo reacted to the Derby by breaking out in a skin rash the day after the race.

"It was a herpes virus," said his trainer, David Cross, currently mounting a career comeback at Woodbine. "The kind of thing brought on by stress, and he had it off and on for two years after that."

It was the outbreak two weeks after the Derby that cost Sunny's Halo dearest. Cross had summoned a squad of veterinarians to Pimlico to examine his colt. Structurally, Sunny's Halo was holding up well, despite a set of ankles that, as Cross noted, "took a lot of attention." A workout one week before the Preakness was too fast for the trainer's taste, but Sunny's Halo appeared to recover quickly. As for the rash, Cross got a consensus green light from his vets to give the Preakness a shot.

It is worth mentioning here that Victory Gallop was suffering from an outbreak of hives when he ran in the 1998 Belmont Stakes, and still he managed to end the Triple Crown dreams of Real Quiet. Clear and cool weather on Long Island that day helped.

Conditions were a little more harsh for Sunny's Halo. Temperatures tickled a muggy 80 degrees and steady rain turned Pimlico sloppy as the Preakness field assembled in the claustrophobic indoor saddling paddock.

"It was terribly hot, and water was dripping off everybody," Cross recalled. "The horse started breaking out again right there. You could see it happening.

"I wanted to scratch him in the paddock," Cross said. "In my 51 years of training horses, that's the one thing I can truthfully say I'd do different if I had the chance. But Mr. Foster was a wonderful man, and a wonderful owner. He had his whole family there from Canada, and it was just the greatest thing that had ever happened to him. So we ran."

If the hives weren't enough to beat Sunny's Halo, his trip did the rest of the job. He stumbled and was bumped at the break, then caught up to Desert Wine to press his Derby rival down the backstretch. By the far turn, Sunny's Halo was through. Deputed Testamony came along late to splash past Desert Wine for a 2 3/4-length victory.

As the reigning Derby winner, Sunny's Halo lingered in the racing press for the rest of a roller-coaster season. He lost races at Arlington and Belmont and on the grass at Santa Anita. But he won the Super Derby by 10 lengths, and his close third-place finish against older horses in the Whitney at Saratoga was one of the best efforts of his career. He did not race past 3.

At stud, Sunny's Halo found home sweet home at Double S Ranch near the town of Bullard, just southeast of Dallas. He died there in June 2003, after siring a mess of Texas winners, and was laid to rest on the ranch. When Double S was sold for development, David Hooper of the Texas Thoroughbred Breeders Association orchestrated the exhumation and cremation of the remains, and their shipment to Churchill Downs, where the ashes of Sunny's Halo are now buried in the garden of the Kentucky Derby Museum alongside fellow Derby winners Carry Back, Broker's Tip, and Swale.