Commentary

A quality decision

Updated: May 1, 2009, 2:47 PM ET
By Jeremy Plonk | Special to ESPN.com

Disappointment on one hand, sure. But a big sigh of relief on the other.

Quality Road's defection from the Kentucky Derby field leaves the race one star dimmer, no doubt, but absolutely came with the horse -- and horse racing's -- best interests in mind. We can all agree that those two factions don't always work in tandem.

Imagine if the superstar turned for home three lengths in front Saturday and then had to be pulled up a la Big Brown? With a pre-existing condition, in this ever-dangerous post-Eight Belles era, a potentially disastrous situation took care of itself. The health of Quality Road came first, and for that, owner Edward Evans and trainer Jimmy Jerkens deserve our appreciation.

I'm not here to say running a horse with a quarter-crack is being a butcher -- far from it. It happens every day at every level. Others can debate the injury threshold that separates humane and inhumane; that's not for me. But when the public is well aware of an existing condition, such as Quality Road, Big Brown and even that of likely Derby entrant Square Eddie, horse racing's known game of chance becomes more of a Russian-roulette spin with negative publicity.

For hardcore horse racing fans, the loss of Quality Road can be a bit demoralizing as the Derby approaches. Gone is one of the true stars of his generation, a horse capable of winning the whole shooting match and perhaps more in the coming weeks. But to feel robbed by fate would be wrong; the risk here did not equal the reward.

Quality Road becoming a Kentucky Derby winner would have been a wonderful thing. But rest assured someone else will have his name painted on Churchill Downs in a few days. The Derby institution is bigger than one horse, one owner or one ideal.

A catastrophe involving Quality Road would have been insurmountable for the horse racing industry, Churchill Downs and every single fan among us who loves this game. It simply was a risk not worth taking, and believe you me, there are owners and trainers out there who would not have shown the discretion exhibited by Evans and Jerkens.

The racing gods can be wicked, but I truly think these two will be rewarded some day by the powers that be for this decision. Karma works that way sometimes, and here's putting a win wager on it to come through in this case.

Now racing fans must cross their fingers that Square Eddie's stress fracture does not contribute to any firestorms on Derby Day. Injuries can happen at any time in horse racing. Those of us who watch every day know this too well. When healthy horses get hurt, it's unfortunate and no less emotional. But when horses who have been known to have problems are reintroduced to peril, the public's fury will be relentless toward the humans involved, and the implications could be lasting to everyone in the game. Owner Paul Reddam and trainer Doug O'Neill should be well aware of this as they prepare Square Eddie.

Here's hoping for a wonderful Kentucky Derby, a safe trip for all horses and riders, and for all of us in the racing industry to continue to make decisions that have more than just our own interests in mind. That's the silver lining in Quality Road's clouded hoof.

Playing Risk

Rachel Alexandra, with Calvin Borel up, wins the Louisiana Oaks at Fair Grounds.
Horsephotos.comRachel Alexandra will not run with the boys in the 135th Kentucky Derby.
The Eight Belles postscript also comes to mind as Derby 135 approaches, in that the sensational filly Rachel Alexandra will not be taking on the boys Saturday, but rather running as a massive standout Friday in the Kentucky Oaks vs. the gals. Anyone watching the horses at Churchill Downs this week has come away with an awesome appreciation of how good a filly Rachel Alexandra is, and specifically how fantastic she's doing right now. The way she drilled this morning in Louisville, and the fact that Quality Road has been withdrawn, there's no doubt in my mind that Rachel Alexandra would start as the Kentucky Derby favorite, and horse to beat, if she had been pointed that way.

Some argued last year that Eight Belles running against the boys somehow contributed to her sad death. I find that completely and grossly incorrect, but can understand how an owner or trainer of a star filly in 2009 would not want to subject themselves to such a possible onslaught in the mainstream, non-racing media. No one wants to be part of that game of connect-the-dots, even if you realize how foolish the original premise appears. Plus, the Kentucky Oaks still is one awfully nice race to win, last I checked.

Another filly will come along and win the Kentucky Derby. Rachel Alexandra might have been the one, but just a calendar year removed from Eight Belles, this might not have been the right time to find out. Let's enjoy the stuffing out of her Friday in the Oaks, when she teams on a sensational program that also includes champion mare Zenyatta on the undercard.

Countdown Comes Thursday this Week

The season's pinnacle edition of Countdown to the Crown will be posted here at ESPN.com on Thursday this week, one day ahead of its normal Friday afternoon slot. That should help give insight for those advance wagering or playing the Oaks-Derby double. Thursday's "Countdown" will provide my horse-by-horse analysis of the Derby field.

Talk Derby to Me

You can join me for a live chat each weekday live from Louisville at Horseplayerpro.com from 1-2 p.m. Eastern. I'd be happy to take all your questions and comments on this year's Derby horses and offer my firsthand observations from the stable area and beyond.

Jeremy Plonk has been an ESPN.com contributor since 2000. You can E-mail Jeremy about this topic or anything racing-related at Jeremy@Horseplayerpro.com.

In addition to being a longtime contributing writer to ESPN.com's Horse Racing section, Jeremy Plonk is the editor of The HorsePlayer Magazine.

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