Given the opportunity to send a top 3-year-old to the Kentucky
Derby, horse owners typically exercise about as much restraint
as a hungry Doberman with an unguarded pork chop. This year,
though, the final trio of major Derby preps, all run last
Saturday, left the owners of the three heavy favorites pausing
before calling their travel agents.
Favorite Trick, last season's Horse of the Year and unbeaten in
nine previous starts, was the 2-5 favorite to trounce a spotty
field of nine in the $500,000 Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park.
Instead, he tired late to finish third after a surprising show
of early speed. Had the scrappy son of short-winded Phone Trick
finally revealed the limitations to his endurance that pedigree
snobs had been predicting since last summer?
Lil's Lad, the star of the Florida winter racing season, was 2-5
to wire a paceless field of five in the $700,000 Blue Grass
Stakes at Keeneland Race Course, but he surrendered an easy lead
turning for home to run second to a horse he had beaten four
times in a row. Was the brilliant front-runner saying no mas by
drifting out and tiring late for the second consecutive race?
Coronado's Quest, a skittish head case in most of his previous
races, was 11-10 to win Aqueduct's $500,000 Wood Memorial and
just about the same price to barrel through the paddock tunnel,
assault the lead pony and dump his rider. He comported himself
perfectly while leading throughout en route to a 21/2-length
victory. But was one afternoon of good behavior on his home turf
assurance enough that he would not revert to his rogue-elephant
antics if he were placed amid the unsettling crowds and clamor
of Derby Day?
By Sunday morning, the questions lingered but travel plans were
taking shape. Coronado's Quest will stay at home on the first
Saturday in May, while Favorite Trick and Lil's Lad will contest
what is shaping up to be a fascinating Derby with an overflowing
and eccentric cast. Along with last weekend's two beaten
favorites seeking redemption, the 124th Kentucky Derby will
feature the first pair of undefeated entrants in 35 years and
the first starter owned by an NBA coach.
The easiest decision following last weekend's preps was to head
for Churchill Downs with Favorite Trick, whose defeat in
Arkansas was as impressive as some of his facile juvenile romps.
Making just his second start of the year following a four-month
layoff and stretching out from seven to nine furlongs, Favorite
Trick was more than eligible to come up short in the stretch. A
strong finisher who usually relaxes in the early going, he
instead broke like a bullet and was drawn into a duel with a
hopeless long shot through sprinter's fractions of 22.58, 46.08
Favorite Trick was a length clear after a mile, but winning that
battle cost him the race, and Victory Gallop and Hanuman Highway
came flying late to nail him by a pair of heads at the wire,
stopping the timer in a tepid 1:49.86 for the mile and an
eighth. There's no guarantee Favorite Trick will enjoy being
required to run an extra furlong on Derby Day, but he deserves
the chance to prove that he was the victim of a brutal pace
rather than the product of doomed genetics.
"We're going to proceed," trainer Bill Mott said after sleeping
on the defeat. "There's a legitimate excuse why he didn't win."
The two who finished in front of him didn't run terribly fast
but should certainly not be troubled by the mile-and-a-quarter
Kentucky Derby distance. Victory Gallop, a Canadian-bred son of
Cryptoclearance, has come back from a long winter layoff to win
both his starts as a 3-year-old. Hanuman Highway, an Irish
gelding who began his career at Britain's obscure Wolverhampton
racecourse, had some traffic trouble closing for second and is
getting better with each start.
In the Blue Grass, Lil's Lad had none of Favorite Trick's
excuses. Making his fifth start of the year around two turns, he
strolled to an early 3 1/2-length advantage through mild splits
of 23.61 and 47.04 over a quicker surface than Oaklawn's. Halory
Hunter, a chronic laggard, stayed closer than usual this time,
then shot through a favorable inside path as Lil's Lad drifted
out while turning for home. Halory Hunter widened his lead to 2
1/2 lengths at the wire, completing the 11/8 miles in a solid
The Derby campaign of Lil's Lad ended on Sunday when he was
found to have a chipped bone in his left front ankle. Halory
Hunter--who races under white silks adorned with the big green
shamrock of Rick Pitino's Celtic Pride Stable--will, of course,
go on. Pitino, whose Boston Celtics were eliminated from NBA
playoff contention about six hours after the Blue Grass, watched
the race on television from Suffolk Downs in Boston. This will
be Pitino's first Derby run, but his trainer, Nick Zito, will be
trying to repeat his successes with Strike the Gold in 1991 and
Go for Gin in 1994.
Had Favorite Trick won in Arkansas, this would have been the
first Derby with three undefeated starters. Instead, perfection
is limited to a pair of four-for-four colts, Event of the Year
and Indian Charlie, and no horse with so few starts has won the
Derby since Regret in 1915. This year's unbeaten Derby duo will
be the first since Candy Spots and No Robbery ran third and
fifth behind Chateaugay in 1963.
Event of the Year, a son of Seattle Slew--who was undefeated
when he won the 1977 Derby--beat absolutely nothing in winning
the El Camino Real Derby at Bay Meadows and the Jim Beam Stakes
at Turfway, but looked awfully good doing it. Indian Charlie
handled Southern California's best in quick time while making
his stakes debut in the Santa Anita Derby. Trainer Bob Baffert
says the colt may have more raw talent than Silver Charm, whom
Baffert sent out to win last year's Derby and Preakness. Just in
case Indian Charlie is not cut out for the Derby distance,
Baffert will also saddle Real Quiet, who was gaining on Indian
Charlie and finished 2 1/4 lengths behind him in the Santa Anita
Whoever gets the roses will have to face at least one fresh
challenger in the Preakness on May 16: Coronado's Quest, whose
absence from the Derby may be the year's most sporting gesture.
It isn't as if trainer Shug McGaughey, a native Kentuckian, and
owner Stuart Janney III, whose family has been breeding and
racing champions for decades, don't long to win their first
Derby. They even think the colt may finally be over his juvenile
delinquency, but they would rather not test their theory under
the intense Derby spotlight.
"It'd just be opening a whole lot of cans of worms," says
McGaughey. "When I'd bring him over to the track in Florida,
people scattered like I was bringing over an atomic bomb."
After all the tumult of the prep season, the central question of
this Derby is the same one that loomed six months ago: Can
Favorite Trick dominate his generation in the classics the way
he did at short and middle distances? Wise guys are lining up to
bet against the colt's pedigree, his moderate speed figures and
his defeat in his first attempt at going nine furlongs. But
those who still believe in Favorite Trick found two silver
linings in the end of his winning streak: The experience might
have him primed for a career-best effort in the Derby, and it
probably doubled his price.
Despite a loss in the Arkansas Derby, Favorite Trick looks to
our Kentucky Derby handicapper like the horse to beat.
Favorite Trick 7-2
Indian Charlie 4-1
Halory Hunter 6-1
Event of the Year 8-1
Real Quiet 12-1
Cape Town 15-1
Victory Gallop 15-1
Hanuman Highway 30-1