Derby winner? So many thinks to think


LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- A number of factors are in play today at the Kentucky Derby. It's up to you to decide which might matter most when the starting gate opens at Churchill Downs.

There's the "too smart for our own good" factor involving Favorite Trick, the reigning Horse of the Year and winner of nine of 10 starts, including six graded stakes.

Few Derby horses in recent memory have had better credentials. As well, Trick's jockey, Pat Day, is the winningest rider in Churchill Downs history, and his trainer, Bill Mott, was just elected to racing's Hall of Fame.

Sounds like a 1-5 favorite, huh? Not quite. Favorite Trick is the third betting choice behind Indian Charlie and Halory Hunter, horses who have accomplished far less.

Why isn't Trick the favorite? His pedigree suggests he's a sprinter with limited endurance. Even Mott admitted the colt has sprinter's conformation. And he has raced only twice in 1998. Blah, blah.

If Favorite Trick wins today, a lot of people will wonder why they were so "smart" to bet on a horse other than the one with by far the best record.

Another possible factor is the weather. It has rained at Churchill most of the week, and there is a possibility of more showers today.

The horses that stand to benefit are natural front-runners such as Indian Charlie, Favorite Trick and Artax. Come-from-behind horses don't fare well in the mud because they get mud thrown in their faces running off the lead. You probably would slow down, too.

Who will suffer if it rains? Cape Town, trained by D. Wayne Lukas. The horse hates to get dirty.

"Rain would be a bummer," Lukas said.

The Derby often is difficult to predict because the large fields create problems that don't exist in other races. But one predictor that has worked well over the years is pedigree.

Only once in Derby history has a horse won with a Dosage Index above 4.0. (The Index is a system of grading pedigrees. The lower the grade, the better.) This year, all but two entries have the requisite sub-4.0 Index. The two that don't? Real Quiet, the lesser of trainer Bob Baffert's two entries, and -- drum roll, please -- Favorite Trick. Hmm.

A study of the field's pedigrees reveals several other info-jewels that might come into play. A 20-1 shot named Parade Ground probably has the classiest bloodlines, for instance. His mother, Battle Creek Girl, is a top-shelf mare.

Other silver spooners? Cape Town and Halory Hunter.

(We interrupt this inventory of possible relevant factors to identify an irrelevant one: post positions. Those in the middle of the gate are thought to have an advantage, but don't be fooled. Lukas' three Derby winners started in the 11th, 15th and 16th posts.)

Another factor to consider is experience, or in the case of Indian ++ Charlie, the probable favorite, inexperience.

Indian Charlie is unbeaten in four starts and no one disputes he is a major talent, but four races against smallish fields in California's sunny weather haven't prepared him for today's messy, noisy, elbows-out traffic jam.

Grindstone won the Derby in his sixth career start two years ago, so green horses can win. But seldom has a Derby favorite had such little seasoning.

For those who would rather believe in fate, there is the 25th anniversary of Secretariat's Triple Crown, celebrated this year. It's a fine time for the great champion's blood to return to the winner's circle, but only two long shots in this field trace back to him. He's a great-grandfather to Old Trieste (15-1) and Rock and Roll (50-1). Fate will need to push hard.

Other flimsier factors include the many streaks on the line. No betting favorite or 2-year-old champion has won the Derby since 1979. No maiden has won since 1933. No gelding has won since 1929. No undefeated horse has won since 1977. No female trainer has ever won.

You might consider that before betting on Indian Charlie (undefeated favorite), Favorite Trick (2-year-old champ), Nationalore (maiden) and Hanuman Highway (gelding, female trainer).

More to the point, trainers Baffert, Lukas and Nick Zito have combined to win each of the past four Derbys, five of the past seven and six overall. They point to the race all year. The odds that none will be in the money today are astronomical.

As for the jockeys, four with mounts in today's race have won the Derby before. Gary Stevens (Indian Charlie) has won three times, Jerry Bailey (Cape Town) and Chris McCarron (Artax) have won twice and Pat Day (Favorite Trick) has won once.

Now that you're thoroughly confused, you're wondering how these many factors will play out, right? What's going to happen? Here's one guess:

When the favorite has only four career starts and the second choice (Halory Hunter) has only three wins in nine starts, it's a terrific year for underdogs and long shots to win.

The pick here is Parade Ground, a 20-1 shot with regal breeding and nine in-the-money finishes in nine starts. Jockey Shane Sellers has shaken Day's longtime dominance at Churchill, and trainer Neil Howard is one of those conservative types that won't enter a horse unless he thinks it can win.

Make it Parade Ground, Artax and Favorite Trick, in that order.

Doesn't make sense? Hey, it's the Derby. Who said anything about making sense?

Pub Date: 5/02/98

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