IT'S ANYBODY'S RACE Ho-hum Derby field could yield intrigue and unknown winner


LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Critics are calling it "the mundane Derby."

There is no superstar, even a faux European one like Arazi, among the horses running in today's 119th Kentucky Derby.

But it still should be an exciting race, with a bunch of intriguing betting possibilities and the chance that an unknown will emerge as champion.

The lukewarm favorite, Prairie Bayou, is a nondescript gelding that was considered a second-stringer in his own stable at the beginning of the year. He has won two important back-to-back Derby preps, but still has failed to capture the imagination of the racing public.

The horses wresting attention from Prairie Bayou are: Bull Inthe Heather, an enormous roan colt that is expected to make a powerful late rally; Personal Hope, the Santa Anita Derby winner who will breathe down the neck of pacesetter Storm Tower; and Union City, the 13th consecutive Derby starter for trainer D. Wayne Lukas.

An unusual aspect of this year's race is that none of the top colts from the 1992 2-year-old season is among the contenders. In that respect, the Derby favorites are all late-comers.

Only two of the 10 best juvenile colts or geldings that raced last year have even made it to Churchill Downs.

They are Sea Hero, a 30-1 long shot, and Silver of Silver, a member of the pari-mutuel field. Neither has won a race this year. Instead of running for the roses, champion 2-year-old Gilded Time and second-ranked River Special are nursing injuries in California.

Although no horse gives this Derby a focus, that will change at about 5:34 p.m. There will be a Derby winner, and he automatically will be the horse to beat in the Preakness on May 15 at Pimlico Race Course.

For the most part, this year's owners and trainers represent a new generation of horsemen.

Only seven of the 18 owners have run a horse in the Derby, and none has won it. Paul Mellon, the only old-guard owner with a horse in the race, came closest, but that was in 1969, when Arts and Letters finished second to Majestic Prince.

Only one of the 19 trainers, Lukas, has won a Kentucky Derby. Eleven are training a Derby starter for the first time.

That could affect the outcome. A trainer with some Derby experience should have an edge. In addition to Lukas, Ben Perkins Jr. (Storm Tower), Tom Bohannan (Prairie Bayou), Mack Miller (Sea Hero), Skip Shapoff (Silver of Silver), Howie Tesher (Bull Inthe Heather), Frank Alexander (Wallenda) and Alfredo Callejas (El Bakan) have been through the Derby hoopla and know what to expect.

"The first time I came here with Wolfie's Rascal [the horse finished 17th in 1982], I just breezed into town a couple of days before the race and treated it like a claimer," said Howie Tesher, trainer of Bull Inthe Heather. "But this time, I treated it like the Derby."

Tesher mapped the Derby schedule for Bull Inthe Heather after his surprise victory March 20 in the Florida Derby and has not strayed from it.

Newcomer Mark Hennig also has followed a master plan with Personal Hope, although the horse is his first Derby starter. But Hennig has had plenty of experience. He worked, and studied, the past four years under Lukas and has overseen the Derby preparation for Lukas' horses.

Trainer Bill Shoemaker, who won the Derby four times as a jockey, is trying to duplicate the feat of Johnny Longden, the only other person to ride and train a Derby winner. Longden won the 1943 Derby with Count Fleet as a jockey and trained 1969 winner Majestic Prince.

To some degree, the Derby field parallels the country's sagging thoroughbred breeding industry. Fewer breeders have horses in the race. Three breeders -- John Franks (Bull Inthe Heather, Kissin' Kris), Parrish Hill Farm (Storm Tower, Tossofthecoin) and Allen Paulson (Corby, Diazo) -- have two Derby starters.

Only two breeders with starters this year -- Claiborne Farm (Bull Inthe Heather) and Calumet Farm (Wild Gale) -- have ever won the Derby.

But there is experience where it counts most -- among the jockeys.

A majority of the riders (15 of the 19) have competed at least once in the race, and eight of them have won it -- Jorge Velasquez, Jacinto Vasquez, Pat Valenzuela, Chris McCarron, Gary Stevens, Pat Day, Laffit Pincay Jr. and Craig Perret.

Why are veteran riders important?

The Derby is unlike any other race. The field is huge and requires all the best skills of the riders to maneuver through the crowded conditions and not come unhinged in the process.

Finally, the weather shouldn't be a factor. The forecast is for mostly cloudy skies with temperatures in the high 70s.


Ross Peddicord:

Bull Inthe Heather

The Derby should set up perfectly for Bull Inthe Heather. Storm Tower sets the pace, pressed by Personal Hope. Both horses are compromised by that situation. Bull Inthe Heather needs luck to find room to rally in time, but his jockey, Wigberto Ramos, is familiar with this track (second-leading jockey 1991) and gets the job done.

John Eisenberg: Bull Inthe Heather

This is the "Refrigerator" Perry of the field, an enormous colt that some think will lack the agility to navigate through a crowded field, particularly with jockey Ramos. But the horse will use his massive power to stay close and run down the leaders in the last furlong.

Bob Pickering: Personal Hope

Although West Coast speedballs usually don't impress, Personal Hope's victory in the 1 1/8 -mile Santa Anita Derby was convincing. After the setting the early fraction, the son of Sea Bird lost the lead, but came on again, proving he has a second run in him. That's what it could take to win today.

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