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Horse Sense

1. Roses Are Red. But it wasn't always so: In the initial runnings of the Kentucky Derby, which dates back to 1875, the winning horse wore a blanket of white carnations -- now the symbol of victory at the Belmont Stakes. Early in the twentieth century, historians tell us, a carnation blight (or a missed delivery) forced a change of flower and hue at Churchill Downs, and the Derby has been known ever since as "The Run for the Roses." Imagine the delight of the 1914 Derby crowd when colts named Hodge and Bronzewing were surpassed in the deep stretch by a winner called Old Rosebud. By the way, the daunting mile-and-a-quarter distance of the Derby wasn't established until 1896. Before that, the race was even longer -- a mile and a half.

2. Top Jocks Prevail. The late, great Eddie Arcaro won a record five Kentucky Derbys in 21 starts, and Bill Shoemaker went four for 26, winning his last one aboard Ferdinand at the age of 54. Among current riders, Gary Stevens (who will pilot long shot Sunday Break at this year's race, on May 4) leads the pack with three Derby winners (Winning Colors in 1988, Thunder Gulch in 1995 and Silver Charm in 1997), while Eddie Delahoussaye, fellow Cajun Kent Desormeaux, Chris McCarron and Jerry Bailey have two wins each. This year, the most intriguing horse under one of these jockeys is probably Bailey's Castle Gondolfo, a brilliant Irish import who has never run in the U.S. The railbirds down in Louisville think he's a live long shot.

3. Knock on Wood. Seasoned Derby folk watch the important prep races leading up the first Saturday in May to see which three-year-olds are developing and which are regressing. The last two Kentucky Derby winners -- Fusaichi Pegasus and Monarchos -- also won the 1 1/8-mile Wood Memorial three weeks earlier in New York. But this year's daunting pre-race favorite, Harlan's Holiday (six wins and four places in ten starts; $1.46 million in earnings) instead ran in another key prep, the Blue Grass Stakes, 75 miles up the road from Churchill Downs at Keeneland. He won it by an easy 4 1/2 lengths. Smart players took note when an virtually untested colt named Buddha won the Wood in only his fourth race, but they love Holiday and will keep a wary eye on Arkansas Derby winner Private Emblem.

4. How to Mix a Mint Julep. Boil two cups sugar and two cups water for five minutes to make simple syrup. Cool. Add eight sprigs of fresh mint. Mull. Chill. Fill silver julep cups with shaved ice. Contemplate. Pour one teaspoon mint syrup and two ounces bourbon (from Kentucky, of course) over ice. Stir rapidly to frost outside of cups. Garnish with mint leaves. Sit down. Drink. Let the foolishness begin. And remember: On Derby day, supermarkets and greengrocers run out of fresh mint early, so get your butler and driver moving by dawn.

5. Why the Chalk Gets Erased. Due to its huge twenty-horse fields and double-truck starting gates, the Kentucky Derby quite often begins as the Oklahoma Land Rush and, by the clubhouse turn, degenerates into a pileup at the Daytona 500. Throw in intangibles like an unfortunate post-position draw (such as the far outside), an unexpected morning deluge or plain bad racing luck, and you quickly see why the Derby favorite has won the race just twice in the last twenty years. Even if your beloved five-to-two shot manages to weave his way through the L.A.-style traffic, accelerates in the stretch and gets a clear shot at the wire, there's no guarantee he will like Churchill's unique surface, the bellowing of 60,000 lunatics who've been drinking the aforementioned mint juleps for three days, or the notion of exerting himself for an extra furlong when he could be lolling in the barn munching oats. Rule of thumb: Forget the chalk, even if it's named Secretariat or Harlan's Holiday, and put your hard-earned two bucks on an outsider who figures (see number 9 below).

6. The Dope on Dosage. Like astrophysics and Powerball, equine science has created a world of wonders in recent years, not the least of which is a formula by which horsemen calculate their animals' suitability to run certain distances according to their pedigrees. To keep it simple (like the syrup), the lower a thoroughbred's "dosage" number, the more likely he or she will be able to handle the Derby's tough mile and a quarter. Horses rated 4.00 and above are considered sprinters; those ranked under 2.00 may be able to run all day -- if not always very fast. Since "dosage" became the rage fifteen years ago, only two Derby runners have overcome high numbers to win the race. This year, Harlan's Holiday is 2.33, Buddha is 2.00, Sunday Break is 2.37 and Saarland is 1.84. Santa Anita Derby winner Came Home, who is bound to attract a few bucks on May 4, is marginal at 4.00, as are Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Johannesburg (3.69), Essence of Dubai (3.57) and Private Emblem (3.50). The lowest dosage number in the field belongs to an inexperienced colt, Medaglia D'Oro (1.36), who finished second to Buddha at the Wood in just his fourth lifetime start. Beware!

7. Spy a Trained Eye. Good trainers win big races. It's as easy as that. The great Ben Jones won six Derbys between 1938 and 1952, and Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons put three trophies in the case in the 1930s. This year, both D. Wayne Lukas, who earned Derby roses with Winning Colors (1988), Thunder Gulch (1995) and Grindstone (1996), and Bob Baffert (back-to-back wins in 1997 and 1998) have slipped into the field late. The Lukas-trained Proud Citizen was considered an impossible outsider until he won the Lexington Stakes April 20 at 8-1 odds; Baffert had no Derby horse until War Emblem took the Illinois Derby in an upset, was sold for a million dollars, and the new owners signed him on as trainer. They may not be the fastest horses on four legs, but their trainers are magicians accustomed to scoring big prizes. By contrast, guys like Ken McPeek (Harlan's Holiday), Paco Gonzalez (Came Home) and Ted West (Easy Grades) are in the second rank.

8. Love Is Unconditional. Of the two kinds of people in the world, those who care deeply for race horses -- people who are moved to tears by the strength, grace and beauty of thoroughbreds -- are better company than those who don't give a damn for a mane or a tail. Horse racing continues to have financial problems -- New Jersey's Garden State Park is no more; Chicago's glamorous Arlington closed for three years -- and most Americans pay heed to the Sport of Kings only when the Kentucky Derby rolls around and the guy from accounting decides to get up an office pool. What a pity. The selfless, four-legged wonders who contest this beautiful and thrilling sport are little loved; meanwhile, they give their all -- every ounce of heart and will -- for the few who care to watch. It wouldn't hurt to remember that as the field comes pounding for home in Louisville a week from Saturday. Pour yourself another mint julep, and raise the cup to horseflesh.

9. Who the Winner Is. Well, maybe. If the planets are properly aligned, the track is fast, and God isn't still so angry about our many transgressions that he can't see fit to forgive, then maybe our pick to win the most wide-open, contentious Kentucky Derby in years will have a chance. Of course, he'll need a decent trip. The jockey must remain aboard for the entire two minutes. And some of the other three-year-olds in the field might have to start thinking they're at the circus or in a petting zoo. If all that happens, and more, then Saarland might come home first. At double-digit odds, too. He's beautifully bred: His father, Unbridled, won the 1990 Derby. He has a clever, unflappable trainer, Claude McGaughey III -- better known to man and horse as "Shug." The jockey, John Velasquez, is the top rider in New York these days. Saarland's "dosage" is a fine 1.84.

On the other hand, he has won only two of his seven races. But fate and justice may be on his side. In the Wood Memorial at the Aqueduct Raceway on April 13, Saarland broke last and was promptly bumped by another horse. He ran the first seven furlongs evenly, picking up a little ground, then closed nicely to finish fourth, 3 1/2 lengths behind Buddha. At the end, he was moving fastest of them all. An unimpressive run, you say? Well, it wasn't bad for a horse who was choking to death in the home stretch. A full quarter-mile from the wire, Velasquez reported afterward, Saarland had suddenly gulped in a breath and...held it in...until crossing the finish line. Five days later, a veterinarian performed minor throat surgery on the colt to reopen his larynx and, we believe, to reopen his career as a winner. I don't know about you, but the story causes me to breathe easier. Now, who's going to pick up the bourbon?


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