A Horse by Only This Name

The vast majority of football-crazy, hoops-happy, golf-goofy American sports fans give their attention to horse racing just one day a year now. It's the first Saturday in May, when all eyes turn to Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby.

Most people will want to get right back to their hockey brawls, home-run races and beach-volleyball telecasts. So here's our pick for the 123rd running: Silver Charm. Bet the farm and pray.

Regular readers of this page who are also thoroughbred-racing fans may recall that in 1995 we picked long shot Tejano Run to win the Derby, and he wound up running second to even longer shot Thunder Gulch. Last year we chose Cavonnier, who lost by half a nostril to Grindstone.

This goes to show that humans can come down with "seconditis," too, just like horses. We'll be playing generously priced Silver Charm to win and place this Saturday, and using him in the exotics.

Still, we're stubborn in the opinion that Bob Baffert's charge has the right stuff to wear the roses. Those who haven't already stopped reading so they can tune in the ice-dancing final from Lake Placid may want some explanation.

Item 1: The Case Against Captain Bodgit.
Simple. Favorites don't win the Kentucky Derby. Bimelech (2-5) didn't win it in 1940, Honest Pleasure (2-5) ran second in 1976, and "can't-miss" faves like Arazi, Mister Frisky and Holy Bull all missed big-time in recent runs for the roses. In this decade, the smallest winning payoffs in Louisville were Strike the Gold's $11.60 in 1991 and Grindstone's $13.80 last year. Long-shot winners like 1995's Thunder Gulch ($51) and 1992's Lil E. Tee ($35.60) really shocked the chalk players: In the 1990s, the average Derby-winning payoff has been $26.23 for $2 chanced.

The winner of two major Kentucky Derby prep races, the Florida Derby and New York's Wood Memorial, Captain Bodgit is probably the fittest and fastest of this year's Derby contenders (despite that fetchingly bowed leg of his). But because of bad luck, heavy traffic and, maybe, voodoo, favorites have all kinds of trouble in the Derby. By the way, so do horses exiting the Wood: In the last five years, no horse but Go for Gin has run in the money in Louisville after prepping in New York. It's just not a good indicator race. One last note: Major trainers win major races. Captain Bodgit's conditioner, Gary Capuano, is talented but distinctly second-rank.

Item 2: The Pace Punishes Pulpit.
The historical reasons to go against the three-year-old phenom of 1997 this Saturday are, first, that Pulpit is liable to be a co-favorite (see above) and, second, that no horse that didn't race as a two-year-old has won the Kentucky Derby since Apollo--way back in 1882. Pulpit was unraced at two (so were fellow Derby entrants Crypto Star, Frisk Me Now and Jack Flash). Frank Brothers's brilliant runner won the Fountain of Youth and, better yet, the key prep race of all key prep races, the Blue Grass Stakes. But Pulpit's entire career consists of five starts. And even for these babies, experience counts. We've got another theory, too. Pulpit has lately proven himself a versatile type, but what he really likes to do is run fast early. Jockey Shane Sellers could wind up atop one weary racehorse when the big Derby field reaches the crucial eighth pole. At our peril, we go against a horse we love. But don't dare leave Pulpit out of the trifecta.

Item 3: The House Has a Mortgage.
The Southern California speedball Free House has turned back Silver Charm not once, but twice, in the San Felipe Stakes on March 16 and the prestigious Santa Anita Derby on April 5, while Charm has beaten him just once. So why don't we like this Paco Gonzales-trained colt to hold off Charm again in Louisville? Because Santa Anita favors early foot and Churchill Downs does not. Expect Free House and rider David Flores to fade like last year's roses on the heavier, deeper Churchill racing strip, unless they get very, very lucky with horses tangling in traffic behind them.

Item 4: The Unfinished Concerto and Flash's Crash.
I'm no doctor, but I believe in "dosage." That's the numerical calculation of a horse's inherited ability to go the Kentucky Derby's classic distance, a mile and a quarter. There's no use getting technical here: Suffice it to say that only one horse with a "Dosage Index" higher than 4.00 has won the Derby since 1929. This eliminates George Steinbrenner's Jim Beam Stakes and Tesio Stakes winner, Concerto, who has a 4.20 D.I., and Jim Beam runner-up Jack Flash (4.45), and it casts doubt on Arkansas Derby winner Crypto Star, whose index is a borderline 3.73. Wonder why top trainer D. Wayne Lukas is running his magnificent filly Sharp Cat in the all-female Kentucky Oaks instead of the Derby? One very good reason is her genetic code, as expressed in a whopping 5.00 Dosage Index.

Captain Bodgit (1.40), Pulpit (3.27) and Free House (2.64) all sport acceptable D.I.s, but none of them are lower than Silver Charm's 1.22. Something else, too: Each year, a few Derby horses are anointed as "dual qualifiers"--runners with low Dosage Indexes and high numbers in a theoretical exercise called the "Experimental Free Handicap," which is based on horses' two-year-old performance. This year, barring late changes in the field's makeup, only two Derby runners have both--the late-running Santa Catalina winner Hello and our pick, Silver Charm. Does this matter? Consider: Twenty of the last twenty-six Derby winners have carried dual-qualifier credentials--including 1995 winner Thunder Gulch, who paid $51 to all who paid attention.

At the Wire. A Charmed Life.
Handicapping the Kentucky Derby is as tough as figuring out Patton's next move in North Africa. But Silver Charm (the son of Silver Buck) has the right breeding for the stern test at Churchill. After gaining weight in the winter, he's coming into his best form and working beautifully in Louisville, on a track that should suit his stalk-and-close style. Bob Baffert, who's supplanted geniuses like Lukas, Whittingham and Mandella to become the top conditioner in Southern California (especially with three-year-olds), may also run a colt called Anet in the Derby. But for Baffert, it's Charm who "now has that look. Now he knows he's good."

There's more. Rider Gary Stevens--"Stiffin' Stevens" to some disgruntled players--is among the world's best. And while the Santa Anita Derby, Silver Charm's most recent prep, hasn't produced a Kentucky Derby winner since the great Sunday Silence in 1989, Anita runner Cavonnier failed last year in Louisville by only an eyelash. Not only that, but Silver Charm is a big gray colt. Easy to spot in that thrilling, mad, equine mass of twenty dashing toward the first turn. Evenly matched, the field does promise to be a little smaller this year--twelve or thirteen instead of the usual twenty, which could minimize the traffic.

So. The Finish:
1. Silver Charm
2. Hello
3. Pulpit

Remain unconvinced? Okay. Here's one last angle, albeit one best suited to Aunt Lucille and the two bucks she wants to bet. In 122 runnings of the Kentucky Derby, fifteen horses whose names begin with "S" have won the thing--more than any other letter of the alphabet. Not only that, eight "S" horses have done it in the past twenty years. All together now--Seattle Slew, Spectacular Bid, Sunny's Halo, Swale, Spend a Buck, Sunday Silence, Strike the Gold and Sea Hero.

Does that make Silver Charm what the players call a "mortal lock?" Sure. Says so here. Sertainly. Unless possible entrant Smokin' Mel gets to the wire first.

Just kidding. Count on Silver Charm. Unless it rains colts and fillies Saturday morning in Louisville (in which case, play mudders Bodgit and Crypto Star). Unless Charm runs a clunker workout today. Or Phantom on Tour suddenly turns into the second coming of Secretariat. Or L.A.-style traffic stops Gary Stevens cold at the quarter-pole. Or Celtic Warrior suddenly goes to war. The gods of horseflesh and jockeydom delight in laying evil impediments on the road to glory.

That was quite a drama Saturday night in the City of Big Shoulders, wasn't it?

Looking once more like they'd slept late (or not at all), your Colorado Avs spotted the heavily hospitalized, undermanned Black Hawks a field goal before putting a touchdown on the board to close out their first-round NHL playoff series. The football imagery naturally springs to mind because, in watching the Avalanche's brinksmanship, a lot of us couldn't help thinking of another upstart called Jacksonville. Had the Hawks knocked Colorado out of the Stanley Cup race, pro-sports fans here might have felt doubly damned. First the Donks are burned, then the Avs get scorched in a Chicago fire?

As it is, Roy and company could get all they want in the next round--regardless of opponent. But don't you think the boys have learned their lesson? Battle-tough now, they look fully cranked to go to war. Even if they still lack a crucial weapon--the Arms of Krupp.

Unlike the local football team, they know how to win the big one.