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Had Lee Ferrell done his handicapping properly, he wouldn’t have bet so heavily on suicide by Thoroughbred.

Ferrell is the tragic jerk from Bel Air, Md., who strolled onto the track during the Preakness undercard at Pimlico. He stopped at a spot a few hundred yards up the stretch from the finish line shortly after the last of eight horses in the Maryland Breeders Cup Handicap, a $200,000 stakes race, made his way through the final turn. As the pack headed for home, Ferrell turned to face the onrushing stampede, pulled his arms in tight, bent slightly at the knees, and leaned forward. He didn’t look drunk. He looked ready to die.

Ferrell later told the arresting officer he had been trying to off himself. There sure are more efficient and effective ways to achieve that objective—but anyone who has stood along the rail as a herd of 1,400-pound horses rushes past at about 40 miles per hour wouldn’t quibble that there wasn’t method to Ferrell’s madness. Horses can and do kill. Jockeys die every now and then after being trampled in spills or crushed in the starting gate. And interloping spectators have, on at least one occasion, met their maker: A radical suffragette named Emily Davison died after being run over during the 1913 Epsom Derby in England. Davison went to the great race in hopes of calling attention to the women’s movement. She planned to knock a horse named Anmer out of contention and thereby embarrass its owner, King George V. Anmer had other ideas, though. The 3-year-old stomped on Davison when she crossed his path and grabbed at his bridle. She suffered a fatal skull fracture.

Ferrell wasn’t hoping to advance any political ideals, nor did he intend to die by accident. Suicide used to be a much more personal and private act. But Ferrell, like a lot of miserable, selfish louts these days, wanted company when he ended it all. And for a very long five or six or seven seconds after he got on the track, it looked as if the 100,000 or so confused, transfixed patrons would have to witness the stocky 22-year-old in his baggy shorts and sleeveless shirt getting trampled. And if that had happened, they might well have seen some jockeys and horses going with him.

But as deadly as horses can be, if Ferrell had done his homework, he would have learned that the species’ track record on assisted suicide isn’t at all convincing: The only similar incident to ever occur in U.S. Thoroughbred racing came in August 1995, when a transient named Russell Caputo intentionally put himself and others in harm’s way at Del Mar, the Southern California racetrack founded by Bing Crosby. Caputo jumped over two fences, a rail, and a moat to get on the track. Once there, he jogged directly in front of the eight-horse pack as it hit the stretch in a $46,000 allowance race.

But all the jockeys were able to steer their mounts away from the straggler. After being apprehended, Caputo told police he had spent the morning walking along the railroad tracks that border Del Mar, waiting for a train to come by so he could jump in front of it. But when his train didn’t come in, he decided to give the horses a chance. Track security was amazed to learn that Caputo hadn’t violated any state or federal laws by disrupting the race. They had the right to ban him for life from all California tracks, but that was it. Del Mar security still keeps his picture on file, just in case he ever shows up again.

“That Caputo incident was the weirdest, most bizarre thing I ever saw in racing,” says Bill Knowles, who recently retired from his job as security chief for Del Mar. “Talking around with all the old hands, nobody could remember seeing anything like that. Who would do that? Well, after this weekend in Maryland, we know at least two people who would.”

Ferrell, like Caputo, lost out to the talents of the best riders in the country, who were in Maryland for Preakness Day only. In a scene that looked straight out of a Touched by an Angel episode, one horse after another zipped by the wannabe victim without so much as nicking him. The colt Yes It’s True, ridden along the rail by Jerry Bailey, was the first to blast past Ferrell.

“I couldn’t believe my eyes, some young fellow standing 10 feet off the rail,” Bailey said later. “I wouldn’t want to overcome running over a guy.”

Just behind Bailey, Hall of Fame rider Pat Day steered clear on the outside aboard Kentucky-bred Trader’s Echo, and a pair of Maryland-bred local favorites, Purple Passion and Greenspring Willy, the latter with Gary Stevens aboard, also swept wide.

Amazingly, Stevens had also been involved in the suicide attempt at Del Mar: His horse in that race, the filly Toga Toga Toga, had pulled back to avoid hitting Caputo. The Daily Racing Form chart said Stevens and Toga Toga Toga “lost the show when having to steady to avoid the man on the track.”

By the time Stevens’ horse passed him, Ferrell clearly sensed that he was being cheated out of death, and he lost his cool. He came out of his crouch in time to throw a wild right hook at Artax, the betting favorite and a 1998 Kentucky Derby entrant. Artax had been making a beeline for Ferrell until Jorge Chavez chose to drop his mount out of contention rather than risk running over the disturbed patron.

Ferrell’s haymaker appeared to miss the horse by more than a foot. He regained his balance right around the time the last animal crossed the finish line. It was over, and he was still alive. He didn’t look around or try to run away. He just walked forward slowly, with his eyes to the ground, as all the dust kicked up by the would-be tramplers floated back to earth. When security forces finally got to the scene and pummeled him, Ferrell didn’t resist as much as he could have. He sat in the back of a police van as authorities debated his legal future. After viewing the tape on house television, they speculated that, along with whatever drug and alcohol counts the lab work justified, Ferrell’s big punch at Artax (which would later be described, rather dubiously, as a poke at Chavez) warranted assault charges. Ferrell cried as he was carted off to jail, but nobody who saw what he’d done was feeling sorry for him.—Dave McKenna