LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The Kentucky Derby never fails to attract a few entries with, shall we say, dubious credentials.
But a horse without a victory in 15 career starts?
A horse that has covered more than 13 miles in his racing career without once holding the lead?
"He don't know about any of that," said Rafael Martinez, the assistant trainer for Nationalore, a dark bay California colt who has finished second or third 11 times, but never first.
Three maidens, as nonwinners are called at the track, have won the Derby before. But that was 114, 79 and 65 years ago, meaning no maiden has won the Derby since Franklin Roosevelt's first term in the White House. In other words, it's a good idea to win one before you get here.
None of those three maiden Derby winners (Buchanan, Broker's Tip and Sir Barton) took nearly as many as 15 shots before the Derby. Nor did they avoid the lead so steadfastly that you'd think they thought they had to eat stale oats if they ever dared to come in first.
That would appear to be Nationalore's inclination after 13-plus miles of following the leader.
Derby historians can't remember a maiden carrying so many defeats into the race.
It's no wonder Myung Kwon Cho, Nationalore's Korean-born owner/trainer, stayed at home in California until late last night, allegedly tending to his clothing business.
"All people want to ask is why we're here," said Martinez, who has trained the colt in Cho's absence.
And the explanation for why they're here?
"Look at his record," Martinez said. "He's run in this company."
It's true. Nationalore may not have won any races, but he isn't a claimer or a low-grade allowance horse, either.
Cho has run him in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, Hollywood Futurity and Santa Anita Derby, as well as several smaller California stakes, and Nationalore has run near the front often enough to win $283,000, more than seven of the 14 other horses in this Derby.
In other words, as crazy as it sounds, the 0-for-15 horse probably isn't the longest shot in the race.
Nationalore's father, Video Ranger, finished fourth in the 1990 Derby. And any horse that runs third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, as Nationalore did last year, isn't reaching too absurdly in any race.
"People laughed at us before the Breeders' Cup," Martinez said. "They didn't laugh when we picked up $120,000."
Still, as any fan of the Boston Red Sox can tell you, it's a lot easier to lose with honor than win. And Nationalore always finds a way to lose. That's putting it mildly.
You would think he'd try out the lead for at least a few steps at some point in 15 races spanning 13 months at three different tracks with five different jockeys.
You would think the pack would part at least once and Nationalore would have no choice but to stumble to the front for a bob or two.
Sorry. We're dealing with a horse who is either so shy that he probably needs a shrink or so hardened in the habits of submission that the lead terrifies him.
"But he always tries hard," Martinez said.
In his defense, Nationalore's style is to drop off the lead by as many as 30 lengths before making a crazed rush to the finish. It's not an unusual style. Concern won the Breeders' Cup Classic that way. But it doesn't make for much time up front.
"[Nationalore] got so far behind in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile that the announcer said he was finished," Martinez said. "But here he came."
When he was finished, he was ahead of all but two horses in an eight-horse field, a neck behind the runner-up, Dawson's Legacy, and six lengths behind the winner, Favorite Trick.
"If he'd gone another quarter-mile, he might have caught them all," Martinez said.
He'll get almost all of that extra quarter-mile tomorrow in the Derby.
Of course, there's no evidence he'll want the lead if it opens up in front of him. With all due respect, he might react as the cave man did to fire. Get me out of here!
"There's no doubt some horses get used to not winning," Martinez said. "I'm not saying [Nationalore] is one of those. He runs hard. But some horses do get comfortable in the back. They get afraid that something bad is going to happen to them up front."
Nationalore was unavailable for comment.
Martinez has done all the talking all week, good-naturedly answering the same, tough questions over and over. Are you crazy? Why are you here? Does Cho really think this winless horse has a chance?
"We all think he has a chance, even if no one else does," Martinez said. "He don't know he's a maiden. He just goes out and runs.
"You never know what might happen. If he wins, everyone'll say, 'Look at his record. He was always close.' "
Always close but never in front -- ever.
That's tomorrow's winner?
The Derby has taken stranger turns, surely. It's just hard to think of any.
Pub Date: 5/01/98