A score of continental horsemen regard the French-trained colt Arazi as the most brilliant racehorse to appear in Europe in the last two decades, and not a few of their American counterparts view him as the second coming of Secretariat. But Arazi's presence in the Kentucky Derby has done absolutely nothing to drive the usual suspects and pretenders into hiding.
In fact, with less than two weeks remaining until the first Saturday in May, there are signs that a veritable stampede of horses, perhaps as many as 20, could charge from the Churchill Downs starting gate. Not that American horsemen have forgotten Arazi's magnificent, 4¾-length triumph in last fall's Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs, the most memorable performance in the eight-year history of the Breeders' Cup series of races. "An amazing performance," says Hall of Fame trainer LeRoy Jolley, whose own Derby contender, Conte Di Savoya, was a fast-closing second in the April 11 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland.
Nor is there any shortage of horsemen who expect Arazi to dazzle them in the Derby, as he did in the Juvenile. "He's a freak," says trainer Ross Pearce. "He'll win the Derby by a pole."
What's keeping so many horses in the hunt is the possibility that even if Arazi wins the Kentucky Derby, his owners will bypass the two remaining Triple Crown races, the May 16 Preakness and June 6 Belmont Stakes, and ship Arazi to England for the Epsom Derby on June 3. Such an unprecedented adventure would leave his Kentucky Derby stragglers to light over the $1 million bonus that the Chrysler Corporation gives to the horse who earns the most points competing in all the Triple Crown races. (Ten points are awarded for a first-place finish, five for a second, three for a third and one for fourth.) "Hey, a million dollars is a lot of money," says Jolley.
If you leave Arazi out of the mix, this Derby becomes harder to figure than a Pick Six. Many observers have been calling the current crop of U.S. 3-year-olds the weakest in years, and a search through the past performances of the leading Derby contenders yields one howling question: Can anyone in this bunch run a mile and a quarter faster than Leona Helms-Icy? Some of the running times of the major nine-furlong prep races—from Pistols and Roses' 1:49 in the Blue Grass to A.P. Indy's 1:49[2/5] in the Santa Anita Derby on April 4 to Pine Bluff's 1:49[2/5] in last Saturday's Arkansas Derby—were about as arresting as mud slides.
Still, those three colts have the best chances of beating Arazi for the roses. A.P. Indy will probably be the second choice in the betting, behind the odds-on Arazi, and appears to be the horse most likely to win if Arazi fails to fire, gets slammed around in traffic or catches a racing surface that he does not like. A.P. Indy is the best-bred horse in the race. He is by Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew, out of Weekend Surprise, a daughter of Triple Crown winner Secretariat. In addition, his 1¾-length victory in the Santa Anita Derby was his fifth win in six life-time starts, three of them in stakes. Unlike Arazi, who has a great burst of speed, A.P. Indy moves with a long, sustained charge when he hits his top gear, and every inch of him conveys the impression of a professional on the racetrack.
Pistols and Roses, trained by George Gianos, has never been mil of the money in 10 lifetime starts, and in the Blue Grass, his final prep, he defeated Conte Di Savoya by a neck. Pistols and Roses has a following among the trainers who saw him work in Florida this winter. "Pistols and Roses will be in the money in the Derby—one, two or three." says P.G. Johnson, who saw the colt frequently. "Unlike most of the others, he can go a mile and a quarter. He will be there—positively. And he's dead game."
So is Pine Bluff, and that was never clearer than in the final 220 yards of the Arkansas Derby when he held off' Lil E. Tee at the wire and raced the final eighth in a competitive 12[2/5] seconds. A son of Danzig, Pine Bluff appears to be coming to hand, and the Arkansas Derby may have toughened him. "As far as the Derby is concerned, this horse has as good a chance as the other top four or five U.S. horses," says his jockey, Jerry Bailey.
On the day Pine Bluff won in Arkansas, Devil His Due won the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct for Hall of Fame trainer Allen Jerkens. Immediately afterward, though, the 63-year-old Jerkens was resisting the temptation to send his colt to Churchill Downs to run in the one race Jerkens has always wanted to win. "If you have a really nice animal, you don't want to overdo it," said Jerkens. Then he shrugged, smiled and said, "Maybe I'm talking crazy. Too much excitement for an old man."
Lord knows what to make of the rest of the contenders. Dr Devious, an English-trained colt, was heading for the Epsom Derby, in which he would have been one of the favorites, until early this year, when Sid and Jenny Craig—owners of the diet-center chain—bought him for $2.5 million and announced that he would run in the Kentucky Derby. Dr Devious is going to Louisville off a second-place finish in the April 17 Craven Stakes at Newmarket. "I'm delighted with the race," said his British trainer. Peter Chapple-Hyam.
With Conte Di Savoya, Jolley will have his eye not only on the $1 million bonus but also on the winner's circle. Jolley has trained two Kentucky Derby winners. Foolish Pleasure (1975) and Genuine Risk ('80), and he knows how perilous the straits of Churchill Downs can be. He figures he would have won the Blue Grass from Pistols and Roses if his colt had not been stopped behind a wall of horses at the [3/16] pole. Conte Di Savoya has had three races at nine furlongs this year, and Jolley reckons that is enough to prepare him for the Derby's 10 furlongs. "All you have to do is smile at him, and he'll go a mile and a quarter." he says.
Jolley also suspects that Arazi is no cinch. Speaking for many U.S. trainers, he says that when Arazi won the Juvenile, his chief edge was that he was coming off five stakes victories in France and thus had vastly more seasoning than any other baby in the Juvenile. Arazi no longer has that advantage. He underwent arthroscopic surgery in November to remove spurs from his knees, and he has had only one start this spring, a live-length victory over a modest field at the Saint-Cloud racecourse, outside Paris, on April 7. Arazi ran an ordinary 1:48 over a distance just short of a mile. "I think Arazi has a tougher hill to climb this spring than he did last fall." says Jolley.
All of which makes perfect sense, of course. Still, the belief here is that Arazi will make a show of these horses and this Derby.