Rapid-fire excuses follow misfiring of Arazi's rockets


LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The excuses flew. Flew a lot faster than Arazi.

"I think he could have used another prep race before this," jockey Pat Valenzuela said.

The horse with wings suddenly was just another eighth-place finisher with mud in his eyes. It was not a pretty sight.

"To be honest," said trainer Francois Boutin: "I was pushed a little by my [owners] to bring him here. Our preparation was always rushed."

Jet-propelled excuses instead of a jet-propelled colt. Too bad.

No horse in Kentucky Derby history was treated with such fanfare. His every move was photographed from the moment he stepped off the airplane from France. More win money was wagered on him at Churchill Downs than on any other horse in Derby history.

Had he lived up even to a portion of his advertising, he would have won. The race set up perfectly for him. The slow pace meant he didn't wear himself out gaining ground from the back of the 18-horse pack. His traffic troubles were minimal, no factor. He was in fourth place at the head of the stretch, just behind the leaders, the perfect position from which to win the race with one of his famous bursts.

Only his legend was the thing that burst.

"He just didn't answer when I asked him to run," Valenzuela said. "I thought we were in the perfect position. When we hit the head of the stretch I said, 'We're in.' But he started drifting outside when I asked him to run. I knew we were in trouble."

The fading colt was passed by four horses in the last quarter-mile.

What did him in? Who knows? Arazi always had a lot of potential excuses. His double knee surgery last fall. The fact that he had only one prep race in 1992. The fact that he jetted over from France just a week before the race. Traffic trouble? A bad ride? What was it? Or was it a combination?

We will never know. The only thing we do know is what happened: The race probably was lost in the first half-mile.

Arazi broke from the gate and immediately Valenzuela had to pull tightly on the reins. The colt wanted to fly away -- bang, zoom, to the moon. And too much too soon. Valenzuela had to tug at the reins all the way down the long front stretch.

"The whole idea was to get him relaxed," Valenzuela said, "and that's not the way to do it. He was just too fresh. Too pepped. I think he could have used a little more seasoning. Maybe he lost some energy (on the front stretch). And by the time I got him relaxed, we were all the way in back."

Dead last going around the first turn. A good 20 lengths to make up. And darn if he didn't start making them up. He actually did have one brilliant burst yesterday. He passed 15 horses in the next half-mile. You can watch the next dozen Derbies and won't see it again.

"And I wasn't even asking him to run," Valenzuela said. "He did all that on his own. I said [before the race] that he was the best horse I've ever ridden, and I still say it. He just got tired."

And then the excuses were flying. Boutin even questioned Valenzuela's ride, suggesting he dropped into the pack too quickly, forcing the colt to work too hard too soon.

Jet-propelled excuses instead of a jet-propelled horse.

"I was the only one afraid to bring him over here," Boutin said. "We were rushing to get him ready from the moment he had the knee surgery [in November]. He was without training for two months. That put us back. But my owners wanted this. And now here it is."

He was standing in front of Barn 45, which suddenly was the quietest place on the backside. All week there had been a wild circus attending the horse. Now, as a light rain fell in the gathering dusk after the race, there were no fans. A couple of reporters. Silence.

The big crowd was elsewhere on the backside, chasing the winner, Lil E. Tee, and rapper Hammer's third-place colt, Dance Floor. Boutin pulled off his tie. Exhaled. His American wife stood inside the barn, tearful.

"No distance problems, no knee problems," Boutin said. "It was just the race."

Just the race. A scheduled coronation that became just another Derby.

"What will you do now?" someone asked.

It was to be the question of the day. The question of the year in racing. Would he skip the rest of the Triple Crown and take a shot at the Epsom Derby? Or would he stick around?

"What will we do now?" Boutin said, smiling as he repeated the question. "We're going home."

Fine. But there was a new wrinkle in the story now. A surprising, new wrinkle in the story of Arazi's plans.

No one cared.

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