INGLEWOOD,CALIF. — INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- Excavate's odds in the Kentucky Derby future book crashed before some of the Las Vegas casinos learned how to spell his name.
Probably because of a slip of the tongue by his trainer, Charlie Whittingham, the 2-year-old colt had been listed as "Excavator" by at least two Nevada race books.
Minutes after Whittingham's Golden Pheasant had won this year's Arlington Million, the trainer was unexpectedly asked on national television about his Kentucky Derby prospects. Whittingham stumbled over the horse's name, it came out "Excavator," and that's the way it stayed in Las Vegas until recently.
But Excavate blew his cover last Saturday at Hollywood Park, running for the first time and winning at six furlongs by five lengths. It was a debut that gave Whittingham no reason to disbelieve that Excavate might complete the hat trick at Churchill Downs that Ferdinand and Sunday Silence started for the 77-year-old trainer.
Now, based on his one victory in a maiden race, Excavate's odds have dropped from 30-1 to 3-1 at the Frontier's race book, making him the second choice for next year's Derby, behind the 5-2 Fly So Free, winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Belmont Park a month ago and a cinch to be voted the Eclipse Award as divisional champion.
The Derby is five months and a jillion land mines away, but if Excavate gives Whittingham that third sniff of the roses, he would be the most expensive horse in history to win the race. As a yearling, the son of Mr. Prospector and Anne Campbell, the Never Bend mare who also produced Desert Wine, was sold for && $1.1 million at a Keeneland auction.
Wayne Lukas was the underbidder on Excavate, with Whittingham buying the handsome colt for Dick Duchossois, the owner of Arlington International Racecourse.
After the sale, Arthur Hancock, Excavate's breeder, bought 12 percent back from Duchossois and Whittingham has become a 10 percent owner.
Like Whittingham, Hancock became a Derby mainstay in the last decade. He was a partner in Gato Del Sol, who won the race in 1982. Then in 1989, Hancock, Whittingham and another partner, Ernest Gaillard, bottled the lightning with Sunday Silence.
"Excavate is big-boned and tough," Hancock said. "I've liked the horse from the time he was a foal. I think that running across those 100-acre fields we've got at Stone Farm (in Paris, Ky.) has really helped him."
Hancock turns out his mares when they're just in foal, and one day a group of them took off running across one of those large Stone Farm fields.
"They were running full out and Excavate was running right with them," Hancock said. "At the end, he beat them. He reminded me of a silver bullet that day."
For a horse with such little experience, Excavate has already worked up a mound of ballyhoo. He has twice been featured on national television, besides the brief, muffled notice Whittingham gave him that day at Arlington.
"I told Charlie about this horse when [Excavate] was still a weanling," Hancock said. "Another thing I like about him is that he's smart. This is a horse that's got a world of sense. If everything goes right, he could really be something."
Some trainers might be tempted to thrust Excavate into the $1 million Hollywood Futurity a week from tomorrow, but not Whittingham, who frequently doesn't run his horses at all when they are 2-year-olds.
Sunday Silence raced for the first time Oct. 30, 1988, and broke his maiden in his next race, Nov. 13. He had run four times before his first stakes race, which turned out to be a victory in the San Felipe Handicap at Santa Anita in March 1989. He had run just six times going into the Derby.
And Ferdinand, the Derby winner in 1986, didn't win for the first time until Nov. 3 of the previous year.