The day may dawn clear, but Saturday's 125th Kentucky Derby will be run under a cloud--or rather, three or four clouds--that help explain the unhappy state of American horse racing.
First, as twenty unpredictable three-year-olds go to the post at Churchill Downs, the memory of Charlie Whittingham is sure to haunt the proceedings. The witty gentleman trainer who won a pair of Derbies (with Ferdinand in 1986 and Sunday Silence in 1989) died two weeks ago, at the age of 86, from leukemia. In his 62 years at the track, Whittingham won Eclipse Awards as North America's outstanding trainer in 1971, 1982 and 1989, and three of his champion runners were named Horse of the Year--Ack Ack in 1971, Ferdinand in 1987 and Sunday Silence in 1989.
Just as important, Whittingham embodied the wry understatement, attention to detail and dawn-to-dark work ethic that characterize the best of the old-line trainers. He always came armed with a quip, and on race day he often had a secret strategy up his sleeve. I remember one early morning in 1982, when Perrault, another brilliant Whittingham charge, was on the verge of becoming the year's leading money-winner. Charlie's star five-year-old was putting in a fast five-furlong work in the 6 a.m. chill at Saratoga, and it had been impossible to pick up the horse on the fog-shrouded backside. But at the head of the stretch, Perrault thundered dramatically into view under the bundled-up exercise rider, and together they streamed powerfully down the lane to the wire.
Wearing his signature checkerboard cap, Charlie clicked his stopwatch, looked at it with satisfaction and announced to a little knot of coffee-drinkers: "You didn't see much of him this morning, but you'll see a whole lotta horse on Sunday."
Alas, the racing game will see no more Charlie Whittinghams.
It's suddenly bereft of Julie Krones, too. The most successful female jockey in the history of the sport retired April 18 with 3,546 wins (including 227 stakes victories) and nearly $81 million in purses won. She competed fiercely for eighteen years and became the only woman rider to win a Triple Crown race when she booted Colonial Affair home in the 1993 Belmont Stakes. At Gulfstream and Aqueduct and the Fairgrounds in New Orleans, little girls who stood nearly as tall as the four-foot-ten-inch Julie looked up to her with shining eyes. She would sometimes scrap with fellow riders, but Krone never refused a kid an autograph.
Her farewell, at age 35, was understandably overshadowed by that of hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, which came the same day. But not even the Great One endured Julie's trials. In recent years she was badly injured in two horrific spills (one threatened paralysis, the other her very life), but she declined to retire until she had completely recovered. On April 18 at Lone Star Park, near Dallas, she rode her last three winners.
"I wanted to go at the top of my game," she told reporters. "I didn't want to limp out of here."
Billy Patin may not be able to say the same. At Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas, on April 10, a 30-1 maiden longshot named Valhol shocked the racing world by winning the Arkansas Derby, one of the prestigious prep races for three-year-olds leading up to this Saturday's big day at Churchill Downs. Five days later, track officials asked the Arkansas Racing Commission to investigate whether Patin, Valhol's rider, had used what is called in racetrack parlance a "machine." In this case, the investigators suspect, it was a tiny battery designed to transmit a stimulating shock to the horse. Completely illegal, of course.
At press time the verdict was not in, but slow-motion video replays of the race clearly show Patin dropping something to the ground in the runout after the finish line, and Arkansas officials have withheld Valhol's $300,000 share of the purse. Meanwhile, the horse's owners have undertaken a legal fight to get Valhol into Saturday's Kentucky Derby field: Without credit for the $300,000 win at Oaklawn, he wouldn't qualify.
And without such blots on the reputation of a sport already fighting for its life against casino gambling and a dozen forms of entertainment, every horse, rider and rumpled railbird with a two-dollar exacta ticket clutched in his hot fist would be a lot better off.
Speaking of well-off, how about General Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum? He's not only defense minister of the United Arab Emirates and the crown prince of oil-rich Dubai, but the most powerful figure in international horse racing. Sheik Mohammed and his three brothers--one of whom is the ruler of Dubai--have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in thoroughbreds, and Gondolphin Racing, Inc., the super-secretive horse farm and training facility they operate in the sun-drenched Persian Gulf, is said to be the world's finest. Once you get past the barbed wire.
In five years, the brothers have collected $22 million in prize money while dominating Asian and European racing circuits, winning the Irish Derby in 1994 and the English Derby the following year. The race they created out of desert sand, the Dubai Cup, is now the world's richest, with a $5 million purse.
Forget all that. Sheik Mohammed wants to win the Kentucky Derby.
Last week, two of Gondolphin's prize three-year-olds, Worldly Manner and Aljabr, endured a 21-hour airplane flight from the Middle East, cleared quarantine in Louisville and began workouts for Saturday's race. Clearly, the two colts, who have combined winnings of $339,000, represent the oddest Kentucky Derby bid in the great race's 125-year history. The rest of the Derby contenders, including high-profile runners like Prime Timber, Vicar, Answer Lively and the brilliant filly Silverbulletday, have earned their stripes and their reputations running in America as two-year-olds and in the arduous series of major preps contested this season in Florida, New York, Southern California and Kentucky.
By contrast, the Gondolphin horses have trained for the Derby in strict secrecy in Dubai. The videotapes from their training races have not been released. The names of the jockeys who rode them are classified information. No one from the West has so much as fed a carrot to these dark horses--save Gondolphin's assistant trainer, a Brooklyn native named Tom Albertrani.
Sheik Mohammed tried the Kentucky Derby once before, seven years ago, with a highly regarded, French-trained speedball named Arazi. Arazi ran eighth. Worldly Manner and Aljabr may be stronger, but even if they run 19th and 20th, the sheik says he has no intention of giving up his assault on Louisville. "We will win it in the next four years," he says.
For now, the sheik and his trainer, Saeed bin Suroor, have Bob Baffert, Nick Zito and D. Wayne Lukas to contend with. The big three among Kentucky Derby trainers, they have combined to win seven of the last eleven Runs for the Roses, and Baffert has won two straight--with Silver Charm in 1997 and longshot Real Quiet last year. On Saturday, Baffert likely will send three starters to the post--Santa Anita Derby winner General Challenge, runner-up Prime Timber and one of his two talented, very rich fillies, either Silverbulletday or Excellent Meeting. If the easygoing Baffert can win his third straight Derby, he will make history. As it is, he's already come close: In 1996, Lukas's Grindstone clipped Baffert's valiant Cavonnier by a sixteenth of a nostril at the wire.
For his part, Lukas, who took the roses in 1988 with Winning Colors, in 1995 with Thunder Gulch and in 1996 with Grindstone, will send Cat Thief and Charismatic to the post after two of his earlier hopes fell by the wayside this spring. Zito, the winner in 1991 with Strike the Gold and in 1994 with Go For Gin, appears to have his guns loaded again this year. Adonis may go off as an underbet longshot, and in some circles Stephen Got Even, to be ridden by veteran Chris McCarron, is the wiseguy pick as the "now" horse.
But keep your eye on the Dubai invader Worldly Manner. After he won the Grade II Del Mar Futurity last September (for trainer Baffert), Gondolphin purchased the colt for a cool $5 million.
Looking for Derby precedents? Here are three:
* The Derby winner usually has a "dosage index" (a calculation of stamina based on distance breeding) of less than 4.00. In this year's field, only Worldly Manner (4.25), Charismatic (5.22) and the Elliott Walden-trained Menifee (5.50) are over the limit.
* Many handicappers believe that fast-developing three-year-olds that win their final prep races before the Derby have peaked and are due to regress at Churchill Downs. If you subscribe to that theory, eliminate Silverbulletday (if she runs), General Challenge, Menifee, Valhol (if he solves his legal problems) and a few others.
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* The last two Kentucky Derby winners--Silver Charm and Real Quiet--were Bob Baffert-trained colts that finished second in the all-important Santa Anita Derby. Follow that pattern and Prime Timber is your winner. Of course, if Prime Timber also happens to be the Derby favorite, forget it: No Derby favorite has won the race in twenty years.
I'm going against the favorites again this year--and throwing out the conventional wisdom, too. He may have a sprinter's dosage index of 5.50, he may have emptied his tank versus Cat Thief, Vicar, Kimberlite Pipe and Lemon Drop Kid as he won the Blue Grass Stakes on April 10, and he may not be trained by Baffert, Lukas or Zito. But Menifee is still my man. He showed huge promise at age two before going on the bench with a knee chip. Upon coming back, he won a seven-furlong allowance in high style at Gulfstream Park, then got upset by unheralded Pineaff in the lowly Tampa Bay Derby. But his stirring stretch run under Pat Day in the Bluegrass, at a mile and an eighth, showed he was authentic Kentucky Derby material.
Well-bred and supremely gifted, Menifee runs with his head down and his heart on his sleeve. If that's not enough Saturday afternoon, we should still regard him as an outstanding Equine-American--along with Charlie Whittingham, Julie Krone and the bartender who mixes your first mint julep Saturday morning.
For the record: In previous Derby prognostications, I picked long shot Tejano Run in 1995 (he finished second by two lengths to Thunder Gulch), 10-1 shot Cavonnier in 1996 (he lost by an eyelash to Grindstone), Silver Charm in 1997 (who won nicely at 4-1 over Captain Bodgit), and Halory Hunter last year (he faded badly on the turn and finished out of the money).