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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.

Serena's Song. If Lukas's brave, brilliant filly starts in Friday's Kentucky Oaks instead of Saturday's Derby--at this writing, no decision has been made--we'll never know if she could have joined Regret (1915), Genuine Risk (1980) and Winning Colors (1988) as the only members of their sex to wear the blanket of red roses. She beat the boys by three and a half lengths in the Jim Beam, is bred for the Derby distance, has the highest single speed figure of any Derby hopeful and gets the services of top California rider Corey Nakatani. Drawbacks? She's small, so the traffic could hurt, and she hasn't raced since April 1. Most Derby winners have run within three weeks of the Day.

Thunder Gulch and Suave Prospect. These guys may not quite measure up to Affirmed and Alydar, the heroic duelists of 1978, but a knock-down, drag-out rivalry emerged February 16 in Gulfstream Park's Fountain of Youth Stakes, which Gulch took by a neck. (They renewed March 11 in the Florida Derby, and Gulch prevailed by a nose.) However, longshot Wild Syn beat them both in the Blue Grass and--for those who put stock in weird science--the Dosage Indexes of both colts (Prospect: 4.60; Gulch: 4.00) suggest that they may not be Derby contenders. Meanwhile, the rich get richer: Lukas trains Gulch, too; Nick Zito has Prospect. Last year these two conditioners went at it with Tabasco Cat and Go for Gin, respectively, and between them won all three Triple Crown races.

Wild Syn, Jumron and Dazzling Falls. Any one of these would be a surprise winner at Churchill--but surprises are the Derby's stock-in-trade, are they not? Unheralded Syn ran a huge one in the Blue Grass, but detractors say his wire-to-wire job amounted to sheer theft thanks to a slow pace, and some doubt his ability to go an extra furlong in Louisville. Jumron was closing fast on Larry the Legend in the final panel of the Santa Anita Derby, but his breeding is suspect, and young jockey Goncalino Almeida could be overwhelmed by Derby hype in the paddock and the tricks of his brethren on the track. Outsider Dazzling Falls won the Remington Park Derby in record time, then knocked off even better ones in the Arkansas Derby. But Falls could be a click short on class, and his Dosage Index is way up there at 6.20.

Tejano Run. You didn't think we'd skulk off without making an actual pick, did you? Facing the toughest Derby in years, we threw out the favorite, Talkin Man, on principle, then eliminated most of the others for various perceived weaknesses. That leaves Run, who finished third in last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile, closed a fast second to Serena's Song in the Jim Beam, then ran his eyeballs out in the Blue Grass before getting blocked by a wall of horses at the quarter pole. He still finished third. In Louisville, Run will be ridden by the East Coast's finest veteran jockey (albeit unsung), Jerry Bailey, and he will bring with him not only splendid numbers (a Derby-ready 2.38 Dosage Index and a couple of top speed ratings) but something most of the others don't have--two wins over the Churchill Downs strip, including a maiden-breaker and the Breeders Futurity last October. Tejano Run's trainer, Kenny McPeek, may not be a household name, and this colt hasn't had a lot of racing luck this year. But I think he's ready to roll.

Still don't have your attention? He'll probably go off at 10 or 12 to 1 on the tote board. If he gets under the wire first Saturday afternoon, take Uncle Willie to lunch.


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