04/08/2011 1:33PM

Premier Pegasus latest reminder of just how fragile racehorses are

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So go ahead and toss Premier Pegasus on the pile, this week’s sad tale, suffering as he did a minor injury at a major moment.

Having won the San Felipe Stakes last month in impressive style, Premier Pegasus was duly entered and favored to win Saturday’s Santa Anita Derby. Instead, exactly one month before the day the Kentucky Derby is to be run, the colt was found to have developed a hairline fracture of the left cannon bone – the kind that leads to a catastrophic breakdown if not detected in a timely manner. Good for the crew of owner-trainer Myung Kwon Cho for doing right by the colt. Let’s hope he’s back to fight another day.

Cho, who relies on assistant trainer Maria Ayala for the day-by-day monitoring of his horses, took the bad news well and commiserated with his people, for whom the idea of running the favorite in a million-dollar race is not exactly an everyday thing. As for taking a contender on to the Kentucky Derby .... well, never mind.

Cho did his best to channel the spirit of Christopher Chenery, the man who bred Secretariat, who dealt with a Cho-like blow on the eve of the 1962 Kentucky Derby. Chenery had the morning-line favorite Sir Gaylord (in fact a half-brother to Secretariat) all dressed up and ready to win the roses. Then Sir Gaylord fractured a sesamoid, and trainer Casey Hayes had to break the news to his patron. Chenery’s reaction?

“I feel so bad for you Casey.”

Class like that, the guy deserves a movie.

If the cold reality of the Thoroughbred’s inherently fragile nature seems exaggerated this time of year, it is.

“There’s a lot of horses get hurt,” said trainer Paco Gonzalez at Santa Anita Friday morning. “We just seem to remember the good ones.”

Gonzalez should know. Among the many good ones he has trained have been Free House and Came Home, both Santa Anita Derby winners who went on to run in Kentucky. His first brush with such rarified air, though, came in 1982 when he was an assistant and exercise rider for Joe Manzi when the Manzi barn was led by champion Roving Boy.

As a classically-bred son of Olden Times who had won three major stakes around two turns as a 2-year-old, Roving Boy was rightfully the early favorite to win the Derby. Manzi was taking his time bringing him back, with his sights on the San Felipe and Santa Anita Derby as preps, and to that end the colt was not that far along in his works when Gonzalez took him to the track the morning of Jan. 30.

“He went an easy five-eighths, like 1:01 and change,” Gonzalez recalled. “When he pulled up he took a couple funny steps, but then he was walking fine when we went back through the paddock. Joe was very happy. Everything was looking good.

“Then when we got to the hard road it started bothering him,” Gonzalez went on. “I told Joe, ‘Watch the horse. I don’t think he’s coming back so fine.’ Joe goes, ‘No, no, no – don’t say anything like that!’ You know how he was.”

Manzi, who died in 1989 at 54, wore his New York Italian heart on his sleeve.

“The more he cooled out, the worse he got,” Gonzalez said of Roving Boy. “Joe had them take X-rays and found the fracture.”

A fracture of the left fore cannon, just like Premier Pegasus.

Eight years later, it was another California 3-year-old who made the wrong kind of Derby headlines. Dinard, the winner of the Santa Anita Derby in a pitched battle with Best Pal, went on to Kentucky the choice of many to take the big one. Tucked in at Churchill Downs with a string of Dick Lundy runners, Dinard was under the direct charge of Alex Hassinger, Lundy’s top aide.

“I suppose time makes a little difference in terms of the disappointment,” said Hassinger, who went on to a successful training career of his own. “The horse in California this week, it’s happened a month out from the Derby. We were eight days away from being favored to win the Kentucky Derby. That stung pretty good.”

Dinard was found to have strained a tendon behind his left front knee.

“In Dinard’s case he had something going on that seem to escalate a little at Churchill Downs,” Hassinger said. “That can happen when you change surfaces, going to a different track. It got to a point with him that we just couldn’t go on.”

And there was no good way to soft-peddle the bad news.

“Word was kind of getting around a little that morning when Tom Meeker, the president of Churchill Downs at the time, came by the barn,” Hassinger said. “He said he’d heard some rumors. That’s when Dick said it was time to pull the plug.”

Will there be more? Hope not, but wishing won’t make it so. As long as there is a Kentucky Derby demanding 20 starters and offering riches and recognition beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, there will be at least one Premier Pegasus every year. The best horses, honest and fast, are always the ones most at risk.

In 2009 it was Quality Road, the early Derby favorite, knocked out with a bad foot, followed by I Want Revenge, the morning-line Derby favorite, who was scratched on race day with a dicey ankle. In 2010 it was Eskendereya, favored for the Derby after his breathtaking Wood Memorial, who suffered soft tissue damage to his left fore and was removed from the Derby picture five days before the race. If nothing else, Premier Pegasus is still in very good company.