Place Your Bets

But whatever you do, don't place them on the favorite in Saturday's Kentucky Derby.

The favorite in this Saturday's Kentucky Derby is a regally bred but half-crazy colt named Fusaichi Pegasus, and if you can pronounce his name, you're doing better than most of the bourbon-soaked horse gentry decorating the saloons of Louisville. To be sure, Foos-ey-EE-chee, American-bred and Japanese-owned, is quite a runner: In his four races as a three-year-old, including a pair of Grade II stakes, he remains undefeated. On April 15 at Aqueduct, the big bay son of Mr. Prospector out of Angel Fever disposed of a strong Wood Memorial field by four and a quarter lengths, setting himself up as the one to beat at Churchill Downs. His estimable California-based trainer, Neil Drysdale, says the Foosman has improved with every race, and nobody who knows one end of a racehorse from the other would dispute him. He bucked off his exercise rider three times last week, but he looks like a cinch to win the roses. He should be: His owner, Fusao Sekiguchi, paid a cool $4 million for him at a yearling auction.

In other words, back The Deputy on Saturday. Or Drysdale's other horse, War Chant. Or Aptitude, an intriguing long shot with a thrilling stretch kick who seems destined to excel at the Derby's classic distance, a mile and a quarter. Back anything you want, but not the "chalk" horse.

As a lot of guys begging carfare in the parking lot can tell you, betting the favorite in the Kentucky Derby is like picking the Germans at Stalingrad. Or counting on Susan Lucci to take home the Emmy. No Derby favorite has won since Spectacular Bid, way back in 1979, and it probably won't happen this year, either. Fusaichi Pegasus has a wealth of talent and more syllables in his name than any of the other starters. But he's a little short on experience, and recent history is against him. It could be the murderous Derby pace that does him in. Or a far outside post position (at this writing, the draw has not been made). Or heavy traffic. Or mud. Or the physical mysteries of three-year-olds, which mature at stunningly various rates and come into (or go off) form unpredictably. Or Churchill Downs's demons in general. Saratoga is called "the graveyard of the favorite," but Churchill, too, has long wrought havoc with bettors' best intentions -- especially on Derby Day. Last year a 31-1 long shot named Charismatic won the race; in 1998, the aptly named Real Quiet snuck up on the field and paid $18.80 to win. In fact, the average payoff in the last five Derbys has been $32 for a two-dollar win ticket.

If there were justice in the world (or at the racetrack), the winner of the 126th Kentucky Derby would be an unabashed front-runner named Hal's Hope. That's because his owner, trainer and namesake is one Harold Rose, a widely beloved 88-year-old Floridian who has spent his modest racing career nurturing claiming horses and cheap allowance runners. On March 11, the day Hal's Hope earned his trip to Louisville by upsetting the D. Wayne Lukas colt High Yield in the Florida Derby, grown men wept -- and not just because they were holding sheaves of losing tickets. Rose has never spent more than $25,000 for a racehorse, and he's the kind of blue-collar hero racetrackers love, so everyone was pulling for him. Alas, Hal's front-running style did him in April 15 in the Blue Grass Stakes, and he faded to last, fifteen lengths back. For him to win the Derby, he'll need a couple of miracles -- a slow early pace (unlikely) and a great trip under 42-year-old Florida journeyman Roger Velez, who has ridden the Kentucky Derby only in his dreams. It's lovely to think of an octogenarian named Rose winning the Roses, but it probably won't happen.

What will?

The reason it's worth asking the question in Denver right now is because the city's beleaguered racing fans will actually be able to throw a few dollars into the Derby at their local off-track betting location. That opportunity was very much in question up until two weeks ago -- thanks to a standoff between the Colorado Horseman's Association and the operators of Arapahoe Park, 23 miles east of Denver and one of the most forlorn racetracks on the planet. In January, Arapahoe applied to the Colorado Racing Commission for 35 race dates to make up the track's 2000 live meet. The horsemen who supply the animals that race at Arapahoe demanded 43 days. When Arapahoe management refused to up the number, sympathetic fellow horsemen in five other states -- Arkansas, Louisiana, Florida, Arizona and Kentucky -- pressured racetrack operators in their states to withdraw OTB signals from Colorado betting outlets. As a result, for almost a month, the only horse-racing simulcasts in Colorado came from California, New York and New Jersey, and there was no guarantee that those signals wouldn't soon go dark, too.

Furthermore, without a 2000 meet at Arapahoe, off-track betting in the state could have ended permanently. Colorado law requires thirty live race days annually at a so-called class-B horse track as a precondition to interstate simulcasts. The 1999 season at class-B Arapahoe Park, owned by England-based Wembley USA, ran 41 days -- most of them unprofitable, track officials say. During the impasse with Arapahoe, the horsemen proposed putting together thirty days of racing this year at outpost ovals in Holly, Trinidad and other county-fair locations -- in order to sustain legal simulcasting.

Late last month, though, Arapahoe Park and the horsemen finally agreed to a 37-day 2000 meet, and the out-of-state TV feeds were suddenly back in business -- just in time for the Kentucky Derby. But no one expects Colorado horse racing's political and financial problems to vanish. Live racing has become a marginal proposition in many states because of competition from state lotteries, casino gambling and other forms of entertainment. Colorado, never a strong racing venue, continues to backslide in terms of live "handle" (money wagered), attendance and racing quality. A few more wrangles like the punch-up between Arapahoe and the horsemen, and thoroughbred action here could canter off into the sunset.

For now, the happiest fellas in town have to be the founders of Colorado Private Reserve, the upscale Cherry Creek betting-parlor-cum-social-club that's due to open soon. Memberships in the posh club, which boasts a first-class restaurant, are going for $4,000 to $25,000, and they might have looked a lot less attractive without a piece of this spring's Triple Crown action. Less well-heeled Denver-area OTBs include Red & Jerry's in suburban Sheridan, Havana Park in Aurora, the Mile High Turf Club next to Mile High Kennel Club (now called Wembley Park), the dog track itself and Arapahoe Park.

So. Who will win the 126th Kentucky Derby? Your handicapping (and your guess) is as good as mine, for in the last five years, I've developed a nagging case of "seconditis." In 1995 I picked Tejano Run in these pages at 8-1, and he ran second to Thunder Gulch. In 1996 our pick was 10-1 Cavonnier, who lost by half a nostril to Grindstone. I did come up with $10 winner Silver Charm in 1997, then ran way out of the money in Real Quiet's 1998 Derby. Last year we finished second again with fifth-choice Menifee.

That said, we're taking a flyer Saturday on the aforementioned Aptitude, who will likely go off at odds of 15-1 or more. This is not just a contrarian's bid to beat the favorites. A son of A.P. Indy and Dokki, Aptitude is bred for the distance, as evidenced by his driving third-place finish behind Fusaichi Pegasus in the Wood Memorial and an acceptable Dosage Index (don't even ask) of 2.58. With one win, a place (in the Grade III Gotham) and a show (in the Grade II Wood) to his credit in 2000, he's drilling well at Churchill and seems to be coming to hand for capable trainer Bobby Frankel. A likely rider change to Santa Anita star Alex Solis won't hurt a thing, and if Aptitude can get a clear run at the leaders in the long home stretch at Churchill Downs, he just might get under the wire first. In the exacta and trifecta betting, we're hooking him up, first and second place, with The Deputy, War Chant, Captain Steve and, inevitably, Fusaichi Pegasus.

Looking for another dark horse? Take a long look at Unshaded, the surprise winner of April 22's telling prep, the Lexington Stakes. If that race didn't take everything out of him and he gets into the Derby, he could be the fittest of the fit.

On the other hand, if Fuse-Peg, the $4 million dollar man, wins the thing, guess I'll have to eat sushi for a week. From a styrofoam bowl. In the darkest corner of the OTB parlor. With empty pockets for company.

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