Edgar Prado had just won a million-dollar race, and he felt like two cents.
Minutes after he and 36-1 shot Birdstone wrecked the Triple Crown bid of the seemingly invincible Smarty Jones in the 2004 Belmont Stakes, Prado apologized. He wasn't as upset as the thousands of Philadelphians who had come to Long Island to coronate their beloved working-class hero, but the jockey deeply regretted ruining the Smarty Party.
"I'm very sorry for [trainer] John Servis and all the connections of Smarty Jones,'' Prado said. "This is part of the business, and I'm very sorry it had to be me.''
When asked if he would be disappointed if I'll Have Another lost, Matz laughed and said, "I guess so, if I don't win. It's a million-dollar race, a Grade I race, and we're just trying to get our horse back on track.''
Romans was even more blunt. When asked if he would have any qualms about playing the villain, the straight shooter from Kentucky said, "Not at all. I'd love to have 120,000 people booing me on the way out,'' he said. "I can handle it.''
Tammy Fox, Romans' longtime companion and Dullahan's exercise rider, feels the same. "I want to hear a lot of boos,'' she said, smiling.
Looking at the sport's big picture is a rarity when glory and a $600,000 winner's share are on the line. Racing has yearned for a 12th Triple Crown sweep since 1978, when Affirmed joined the sport's most exclusive club. Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens has been involved in two near-misses, being denied in 1997 with Silver Charm before taking down Real Quiet by a nose the next year aboard Victory Gallop.
"I was beaten a short margin by Touch Gold in '97 and came back in '98 and was the spoiler,'' Stevens said Monday. "What I felt on Silver Charm two strides from the finish line was the most disappointing moment of my life. And there's not a day that goes by when I don't think about it.
"Being on the other end of it was difficult, too, because I was rooting for Real Quiet if I couldn't be the guy who could beat him. I knew exactly what [jockey] Kent Desormeaux was feeling. I was happy I won, but at the same time, there was disappointment.''
Starting in 1979, 11 horses have had their bids for immortality fail at Belmont Park. Whenever a Triple Crown is on the line, there is talk about how much it would mean for the sport. NBC racing analyst Randy Moss is skeptical of that notion.
"A Triple Crown winner certainly wouldn't hurt,'' Moss said. "But I'm not of the opinion that it's going to be a panacea for all of the various ailments that thoroughbred racing has now. It would help in the short term because it will generate positive publicity that racing hasn't been getting much of in recent weeks and months.''
Romans, the son of a trainer, grew up a few miles from Churchill Downs and came of age beneath the Twin Spires. He skipped his last class many days in high school to catch the end of its card. No track has more history, and Romans absorbed a deep respect for the sport's past.
"Those are great horses that have won the Triple Crown,'' Romans said. "We owe it to them to make I'll Have Another earn it.''