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DERBY DAZE

Want the best method for picking the winner of this Saturday's Kentucky Derby? Just follow these three easy steps:

1. Lock your doors and draw the blinds.
2. Have five or six mint juleps.
3. Call Uncle Willie down at the state hospital and ask him who he likes.

As anyone who owns half a box of lousy cigars and a stack of dog-eared Racing Forms can tell you, the Derby is always a difficult proposition. When the bell rings at Churchill Downs, eighteen or twenty crazy three-year-olds come flying out of the gate, scream down the front stretch like a pack of starving wolves, then careen into the clubhouse turn three or four abreast. Those horses not demolished in the first quarter-mile must contend with a murderous pace down the backside, the kind of high-speed traffic jam that would scare a Los Angeles commuter and the ethics of half a dozen jockeys who would have taken up loan sharking or penal reform had they grown a foot taller.

By the time the field--what's left of it--turns for home, only four or five exceptionally talented, supremely fit, outlandishly lucky runners still have the red roses in their sights, and some of those are now running out of gas. At the eighth pole, only a couple with the huge hearts required to run the classic distance of a mile and a quarter usually remain. At the wire, just one horse, whose breeding and speed and courage and lucky stars have all collided in an ecstatic moment, suddenly becomes the most famous athlete in the world.

But he is never your horse.
Despite looking great in the post parade and feeling in the pink, your horse gets a bad trip and plods home seventh. Your horse has a tiny crack in his hoof that the trainer didn't see. In 1992 your horse is the awesome French superstar Arazi, who suddenly decides he hates it here in America. In 1990 he's the "unbeatable" champion from Puerto Rico, Mister Frisky, who stops cold with two furlongs to go.

In '91 your horse is Hansel, the 5-2 chalk, who inexplicably runs tenth in the Derby before going on to win the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes.

In 1994 your horse is the great Holy Bull. He, too, is bitten by the ancient demons of Churchill Downs.

In any year, the Derby is a daunting challenge for thoroughbred and handicapper alike. No favorite has won since Spectacular Bid, way back in 1979, and the list of fine ones that have failed recently also include Easy Goer (1989) and Bet Twice (1987). But 1995 could be the toughest and most intriguing test of them all. For one thing, no three-year-old dominated this spring's Kentucky Derby prep races. For another, Larry the Legend, the probable Derby favorite as recently as two weeks ago, fell prey to chipped bones in his left leg after winning the Santa Anita Derby in scintillating style. Highly regarded Petionville came up with an elevated white-blood-cell count.

As if the Derby picture weren't cloudy enough, a 30-1 shot named Wild Syn upset a strong field in April 15's Blue Grass Stakes, a key prep race. And the fastest runner in top trainer D. Wayne Lukas's barn this year could be a filly. In 121 years, only three of those have won the Kentucky Derby.

Enough. Selected dramatis personae:
Talkin Man. The likely Derby favorite was Canada's two-year-old champion a year ago, and on April 15 he sailed to an easy win in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct in New York. That made it two straight '95 stakes wins for trainer Roger Attfield's charge: Man won the Gotham at Aqueduct on March 25 in equally convincing style. However, the Curse of the Derby Favorite comes into play here, and skeptics point out that this year's Wood Memorial field didn't contain another graded stakes winner. Not only that, the last three-year-old to parlay a win in the Wood into a Derby victory was Pleasant Colony--back in 1981.

Timber Country. Lukas's colt was sensational in 1994, capping the year with a victory in the prestigious Breeders' Cup Juvenile and winning two-year-old champion honors. Furthermore, devotees of "Dosage"--the arcane Nineties science of pedigree evaluation--say this one has the blood to win at a mile and a quarter. He also has jockey Pat Day, who dominates at Churchill Downs. But Timber Country has not won in 1995, ran a disappointing fourth in the Santa Anita Derby and faces a curse of his own: No two-year-old champ has won the Derby in fifteen years.

Afternoon Deelites. When Holy Bull's career suddenly ended this spring in the Donn Handicap, wounded racing fans turned to this Richard Mandella-trained colt for solace and inspiration. This one would now wear the Bull's mantle. Forthwith, Deelites lost just by a head to Larry the Legend in the aforementioned Santa Anita Derby, and his trainer is convinced he'll go better on Saturday, under Kent Desormeaux. But he hasn't looked very sharp, and the pedigree police point out that his Dosage Index is a whopping 5.00. There's no use trying to explain that in two easy paragraphs: Suffice it to say that 54 of the last 55 Derby winners had D.I.s of 4.00 or less.

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