One horse nearly killed himself by smashing his head against the
top of a starting gate before running a single race. Another was
almost auctioned off to balance the books. A third was wheezing
through a lung infection as recently as two weeks ago. And these,
racing fans, are for now the best of the class of 2004, the
Kentucky Derby front-runners in a baffling year defined more by
failure than success and far more by chaos than form. ¬∂ Consider:
After the last term of betting in the Kentucky Derby Future Wager
on April 4, the mutuel field--more than 400 3-year-olds deemed
unworthy of individual status--was favored to win the Derby
over the 23 horses set aside as individual betting interests.
Consider: Among the horses who had emerged from the long prep
season as viable Derby candidates were two (Read the Footnotes
and Friends Lake) who were taking an unheard-of seven-week
break leading into Louisville, one (long-shot Santa Anita Derby
winner Castledale) who'd never raced on dirt before March and
one (the sensational-looking Rock Hard Ten) who might not have
enough in graded-stakes earnings to qualify for the 20-horse
Derby field. Then last Saturday, mercifully, Smarty Jones, The
Cliff's Edge and Tapit impressively won major preps three weeks
shy of the Derby. With their wins the fog lifted. A little.
Smarty Jones won the Arkansas Derby by an easy 1 1/2 lengths and
will go to Kentucky undefeated in six starts, with a chance to
win not just the Derby but a $5 million Rebel-Arkansas-Kentucky
Derby bonus for his owners, Patricia and Roy Chapman. Since
Smarty Jones began winning, the Chapmans have been deluged by
suitors trying to buy the horse--and a shot at the Derby.
"Unbelievable," says Roy, a 77-year-old self-made millionaire.
"We've gotten offers in the millions, higher every week. But it's
like my wife said to me: 'What would we do differently with that
money? Nothing.' With Smarty we can go to the Kentucky Derby."
The Chapmans bred Smarty Jones at their Someday Farm in
Pennsylvania. Just 10 months after the horse was born, their
trainer, Robert Camac, and his wife were murdered by Camac's
stepson. Devastated--"It took the guts right out of us," says
Roy--the Chapmans sold their breeding stock and all but a handful
of racehorses. They hired trainer John Servis, a regular at
Philadelphia Park, to replace Camac, and last spring Servis got
Servis had breezed Smarty just once when he brought him to the
Philadelphia Park starting gate for training last July. The horse
reared violently, cracking his head against an iron bar at the
top of the gate. He suffered a broken eye socket and multiple
fractures of the skull and nasal cavities. "I had doubts if he
was going to make it at all," Servis said. The horse spent three
weeks in a clinic and then was turned out to heal. He didn't race
until November and promptly won twice by a combined 23 lengths.
Now he's won six races by a total of 33 lengths. Naysayers insist
he can't handle the Derby's 1 1/4 miles and that his competition
has been weak. Yet he's never lost, and that seems significant in
this season of mediocrity.
The Cliff's Edge has been trainer Nick Zito's bench horse, a
reliable banger who finished third at 5-1 odds in the March 13
Florida Derby but was regarded as less threatening than
Eurosilver (who is now off the Derby trail) and Birdstone (who
was scratched from Saturday's Blue Grass Stakes with a high
white-blood-cell count). After running down 4-5 favorite Lion
Heart in the deep stretch of the Blue Grass, The Cliff's Edge is
the hottest Derby starter for Zito since he won the race twice in
four years with Strike the Gold in 1991 and Go for Gin in '94.
"It's been a pretty emotional day," said Zito late Saturday
afternoon outside his barn behind the Keeneland clubhouse. "We
had these two horses, and things happen to them. People just
expect you to be back at the Derby every year, and it doesn't
work like that."
On Zito's recommendation Robert LaPenta had purchased The Cliff's
Edge as a yearling in the fall of 2002. Last winter LaPenta, a
communications company executive, tried to move the horse in a
2-year-old sale in Florida. "We buy yearlings and try to sell
them," says LaPenta. "If we can get our price, we'll sell all of
them." His reserve price on The Cliff's Edge was $200,000. The
bidding went to $190,000 and stopped, in part because of an
unimpressive workout. "A cat ran across the track and spooked
him," says Ernie Reichard, LaPenta's racing manager. "What can
you do?" The colt was returned to LaPenta. Now he'll be among the
Kentucky Derby favorites. "Crazy game," says Zito. "Ten thousand
more and we lose him."
Tapit was bought for $625,000 at that same 2002 yearling sale by
Verne Winchell (of doughnut fame), who died of a heart attack two
months later, after 40 years in the racing business. The colt,
owned now by a consortium run by Winchell's wife, Joan, son Ron
and daughter Christina Harris, got big Derby buzz when he
impressively won last November's Laurel Futurity. The buzz faded
when he ran a dull sixth in the Florida Derby, but it has
returned after his powerful closing drive carried him past Master
David and Eddington to victory in Saturday's Wood Memorial at
Trainer Michael Dickinson found that a lung infection had caused
Tapit's poor performance in Florida. Thirteen days after the
Florida Derby he breezed poorly, still sick, and Dickinson didn't
work him again until a week before the Wood. "I told the owners,
'I'll leave him as long as I dare,'" Dickinson said on Saturday
before the race. "It was a significant infection. If we run third
today, that would be great."
In keeping with the spirit of the spring, Tapit refused to
perform as expected.