For a few excruciating minutes, Mike Francesa’s Kentucky Derby dream appeared to be turning into a nightmare.
There was the prized thoroughbred he co-owns, High Oak, having stumbled late in last Saturday’s Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, Florida, running loose and in uncertain health.
Winning the race and qualifying for the Derby that day now were out of the question. Much worse was in the air.
"I think everybody was in a little bit of a state of shock," Francesa told Newsday on Thursday. "It’s a jarring thing. It really is. When you’re in a race and the horse goes down, it’s a horrific thing. You can almost hear the whole place just give out a sigh. It’s a scary, scary moment."
High Oak seemed to be in good position for a stretch run when he got tangled with Galt and both horses went down, in the process throwing their jockeys, Junior Alvarado and Joel Rosario.
The horses were near where Francesa and about 20 friends and relatives were sitting, so he quickly was able to take stock of the situation.
"The first thing I’m doing is looking to see, is a bone sticking out? Has he got a broken leg?" the former WFAN host said. "I’ve seen them break their legs and have to be put down right on the track, too many times, and it’s a terrible sight."
In addition to the fragile horses, jockeys in that position easily can be kicked in the head, resulting in serious injury. "You’re looking at so many things so fast," Francesa said.
He first took note that High Oak’s "legs were all in one piece."
"You look at the horses, you’re looking at the jocks, and then you wait for the news," he said. "You get the horse back to the barn. We were just waiting for the news that night, waiting the next morning, all week, getting news. He keeps passing every test. So far, so good."
High Oak had a minor cut near his ankle, but otherwise seems well, as is Galt. Alvarado and Rosario escaped serious injury.
Until High Oak resumes hard workouts in 10 days or so, it will be impossible to know if he is fully fit, but his owners and trainer are optimistic, and are preparing him for his next Derby prep.
Nothing is official yet, but the likelihood is that he will compete in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on April 9, needing a first- or second-place finish to secure a Derby berth on May 7.
Francesa said he and the rest of High Oak’s team like the track surface at Aqueduct. Francesa, who grew up in Long Beach and lives in Manhasset, also likes the idea of bringing the horse home to race in New York.
While Saturday was "a very tough day, a frustrating day," Francesa said, he reiterated what he wrote on Twitter shortly after High Oak’s fall.
"What makes racing victory so sweet is the game is very cruel," he said. "There is a lot of bad news. There are a lot of things that can go wrong. Keeping the horses healthy is always a tremendous, tremendous chore."
Francesa’s dream has not been to win the Derby — as nice as that would be — but rather simply to have a horse enter the gate with a legitimate chance to win.
"That’s been my goal, and that’s been my quest," he said. "That’s what I always have strived for. That’s it. If I get that, then to me I’ve done what I really want to do. A win, that’s icing on the cake.
"But I want to get in there with a horse that I think has a legitimate shot. I think we have that horse. We’ve just got to get him in. We’ve run out of time and opportunities. We only have one more shot."