Nothing super, except the finish?


LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The Kentucky Derby doesn't change much from year to year. Cab drivers get triple the meter. Cops get overtime pay. The twin spires are tall. D. Wayne Lukas says he thinks his horse is going to win. A lot of big ideas get blown to bits. A lot of money gets wasted.

Not that there aren't always a few changes in the routine or circumstances. This year will be the first, for instance, that the mother of the president of the United States is here betting her eyeballs out.

But there is, of course, one component of the Derby that undergoes a complete change every year. The horses. The jocks with hocks.

The Derby is the major sporting event in which the athletes get one chance, period. Talk about sudden death. The horses are eligible as 3-year-olds, but after that they have to buy a ticket to get in, same as everybody else.

The race takes on a different tint every year, depending on the quality and personality of that year's class of 3-year-olds. Sometimes it's deep and talented. Sometimes it's blessed with a superstar, such as Secretariat in 1973 and Arazi last year until he actually had to run a race. Occasionally, there just isn't much at all about which to shout.

The label affixed to today's 119th Derby reads as follows:

Sorry, no shouting.

Is it an average crop of Derby horses? Let's put it this way: Will the infield blotto-heads have a beer or two today? What do you think?

Of the 19 horses scheduled to start, seven haven't won a single race this year and five have only one win each. This dirty dozen -- remember, that's almost two-thirds of the field right there -- has a combined five wins in 45 starts in 1993, for a .111 batting average.

Think of the first three weeks of this Orioles' season transformed into a horse race. Not exactly the stuff of equine legend.

OK, maybe that's going too far. The Orioles have been a disaster this season, and these horses aren't disastrous. It's just that the Derby is an exceptional race and these aren't exceptional horses. Forget another Secretariat. There's no Easy Goer. No Risen Star. No Swale.

The class has a number of capable, productive horses that any owner would want in the barn, but that's not the point. The point is that the Derby is supposed to have standards, right?

Let's start right at the top. Prairie Bayou, the 5-2 morning-line favorite, has never won a Grade I race. Holy Citation! Personal Hope, the 7-2 second choice, has won exactly one race in a row. The 8-1 fourth choice, Union City, has never won a stakes. These are the contenders, supposedly.

Bull Inthe Heather, a hot choice among handicappers at 10-1 -- and the pick here -- was beaten in his last race by a horse not even nominated for the Triple Crown.

These horses are still young and developing, of course, and don't lack ability; Personal Hope's winning time in the Santa Anita Derby was a second faster than A. P. Indy's last year, and A. P. Indy wound up Horse of the Year. But nowhere in the class is there anything resembling a consistent record. Prairie Bayou is the only Derby entry that has won back-to-back races leading up to today.

It's just a bad year, but the whole business is something of an affront to the 20th anniversary of Secretariat's Triple Crown, which only illuminates what's missing. Secretariat had everyone tuned in, hoping to see greatness. In 1993, the first 11 3-year-old stakes had 11 different winners. If they ran this Derby 11 different times, there probably would be 11 different winners. It's a random spin.

The good news is that it probably will make for a terrific finish, with perhaps as many as a half-dozen horses all trying to come from off the lead down the stretch. It's been awhile since a Derby had a thriller, a buzzer-beater. This shapes up as the year.

It also might be the year for a colossal underdog to steal a win that makes no sense. Sea Hero is a non-winner since last October and the longest shot on the board at 30-1, but he has turned some heads during his workouts this week. You read it here first. Another whisper overheard: Wallenda, with Pat Day, at 15-1.

Of course, the bad news is that it looks like another year gone by without a superstar. Racing has big problems right now, with tracks closing, purses and foal crops dwindling and owners getting out. The game could use a boost. Oh, well. As they say in the barns, there's always the next race.

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