LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- For the first time in 25 years, the Horse of the Year will compete in the race of the year.
Favorite Trick, the first 2-year-old Horse of the Year since Secretariat, will put his pedigree and reputation on the line at 5: 27 p.m. today when 15 3-year-olds burst from the starting gate in the Kentucky Derby.
On May 5, 1973, Secretariat erased all doubt about his pedigree -- yes, even Secretariat had doubters -- and stormed to a 2 1/2 -length victory in the 99th Derby. His time of 1 minute, 59 2/5 seconds stands as the only Kentucky Derby ever run in less than two minutes.
Secretariat, of course, swept the Triple Crown in one of the most dominating performances in all of sport.
And 25 years before Secretariat, on May 1, 1948, Citation romped to a 3 1/2 -length win in the 75th Kentucky Derby. He, too, captured the Preakness and Belmont en route to the Triple Crown.
In the 124th Kentucky Derby today at Churchill Downs -- 25 years after Secretariat, 50 years after Citation -- Favorite Trick will try to repeat history at the demanding distance of 1 1/4 miles against the sternest competition his division can muster.
"History?" Bob Baffert said. "History means nothing to me. I change everything."
Baffert is the trainer of Indian Charlie, the likely Derby favorite, and Real Quiet, a possible upsetter. Baffert has described Indian Charlie as "brilliant" and, like Silver Charm last year, a threat to win the Triple Crown.
Despite Baffert's dim view of the past, Indian Charlie has history -- and unfamiliar challenges -- to overcome. He is the 15th undefeated horse to race in the Kentucky Derby. But he has raced only four times. Not since Exterminator in 1918 has a horse won the Derby with so little experience.
"Indian Charlie could be the exception to the rule, but I say he's in trouble," said Carl Nafzger, who trained 1990 Derby winner Unbridled and correctly pooh-poohed the Derby chances of the lightly raced but highly regarded Arazi and Pulpit. "Things are going to happen to him in this race that never happened to him before."
"For instance, every time he moves, another horse is going to move with him. Every time he tries to go to the front, other horses are going to go with him. Every time he tries to close, horses are going to be closing with him. None of those things have ever happened to him before. It's like a rookie quarterback going to the Super Bowl. He might be a great player and leader of his team, but when he gets to the big game he just might make that critical mistake."
Indian Charlie has made no mistakes so far. After winning his maiden and two allowance races in California by a combined 23 1/2 lengths, he overpowered a formidable field in the Santa Anita Derby with ease.
"We're looking good," Baffert said of Indian Charlie and Real Quiet. "I can't believe that every year I've come here I've gone into the Derby the same -- with horses that are doing great and sitting on an explosive race."
Favorite Trick has even more history to overcome -- not to mention a sire, Phone Trick, who never raced farther than seven furlongs, and a dam, Evil Elaine, who never won past six.
Just as no Derby favorite has won since Spectacular Bid in 1979 (an obstacle for Indian Charlie, if he is indeed favored), no 2-year-old champion has won the Derby since Spectacular Bid. Favorite Trick was 2-year-old champion after winning all eight races, including the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.
Finally, Favorite Trick has raced only twice this year. One horse in the past 50 years, Sunny's Halo in 1983, has won the Derby with only two races at 3.
In his second and most recent start of 1998, the Arkansas Derby, Favorite Trick's nine-race win streak ended when he finished third. His trainer, Bill Mott, and jockey, Pat Day, say Favorite Trick might respond by bouncing back even stronger in the Derby, just as Secretariat did after his third-place finish in his final Derby prep, the Wood Memorial Stakes.
The trainers Nick Zito and D. Wayne Lukas, who have won four of the past seven Kentucky Derbys, say that their colts, Halory Hunter and Cape Town, are prepared for top efforts.
And horses such as Artax, Victory Gallop, Old Trieste, Parade Ground, Hanuman Highway and Chilito will likely light up the odds board with prices higher than they might ever garner again. Chilito, although never having raced in Maryland, is trained by the Laurel Park-based H. Graham Motion.
The field is deep and its story lines many. It is the Kentucky Derby, the greatest race in America.
124th Ky. Derby
Site: Churchill Downs, Louisville, Ky.
Distance: 1 1/4 miles
Purse: $1 million
Favorite: Indian Charlie, 2-1
Post time: 5: 27 p.m. today
TV: Chs. 2, 7 (coverage starts at 4: 30 p.m.)
Weather forecast: Mostly cloudy, 20 percent chance of afternoon showers, 70 degrees.
Last year's winner: Silver Charm
Pub Date: 5/02/98