LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Best Pal, like Ian Jory, is a model of composure. He seldom gets rattled, and he sleeps a lot. "But I don't know what he dreams about," Jory says.
Jory draws laughs with that line because his star trainee is different from the other top contenders aiming for Saturday's 117th Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. Fly So Free, Hansel, Strike the Gold are all well-bred colts who could dream of future engagements in the breeding shed. Best Pal is a gelding.
Male horses are usually castrated at an early age and for a variety of reasons -- not the least of which is the lack of a stellar pedigree. The thinking is: Why perpetuate mediocrity by keeping such a horse potent?
Owner John Mabee had Best Pal gelded "because he wanted to get some of the Habitonys running, get them some exposure as soon as he could," said Jory. "It had more to do with that than anything else." Best Pal is a son of Habitony, a stallion at Mabee's Golden Eagle Farm, a powerhouse owner-breeder operation in California. Gelding horses when they are young tends to calm them, making them easier to train.
To win the Derby, one of the usual requirements is good bloodlines, and no gelding has won the Derby since 1929.
hTC Best Pal, however, is a solid threat to end the drought. He also is the main hope for California, where four of the past five Derby winners have wintered. He has won six of his 10 career starts and more than $1.1 million. And Jory's light 1991 agenda for the gelding -- two races, but both purposeful and encouraging -- seems to have Best Pal peaking at an opportune time.
Best Pal raised eyebrows with a 3-furlong workout Monday. He went in a fast 34 3/5 seconds, then broke the one-minute mark (59 2/5 seconds) for 5 furlongs, with his rider trying to ease him up.
"I never work my horses that fast," said Jory, "but he just likes this track so much. He's handling it so well. And he didn't even come back blowing hard."
Jory, 33, is from Hertfordshire, England, but has lived in the United States for nine years. He trains a small stable in Southern California and is a virtual unknown on the national racing scene, despite having saddled Video Ranger to a fourth-place finish in last year's Derby, Jory's first.
Best Pal is affording him a brighter spotlight. The gelding was a strong second choice in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last fall, and now he is one of the big four here.
The Breeders' Cup, in which Best Pal finished sixth, remains a sticking point for his skeptics. It was his only race outside California, and that weak first impression is the only impression many Easterners have of him.
Jory said there were excuses for the loss.
"He had had too much racing at that point," the trainer said. "The Breeders' Cup was just 20 days after his prior start, and there was the climate change and all that shipping. That race certainly wasn't his best."
The Breeders' Cup was at Belmont Park in New York, where medication for racing purposes is illegal. But, in Kentucky, as in California, Best Pal will be treated with the anti-bleeding medication Lasix and with Bute, an anti-inflammatory analgesic.
On April 6, when Dinard passed Best Pal in the final yards to win the Santa Anita Derby by a half-length, Dinard became the next logical Derby winner from California. But when Dinard was injured a week ago while training for the Derby, the West's hopes fell to Best Pal.
Although not a one-dimensional speed horse, Best Pal has good tactical speed. But the way he yielded to Dinard cast doubts on his ability to go the 1 1/4 -mile Derby distance. And that kind of doubt refers to pedigree.
Habitony's moderate success has been in his home state. Best Pal's mare, Ubetshedid, comes from a family best described as ordinary, but his Dosage index is satisfactory (2.71, below the "qualifying" 4.00 threshold). Besides, Jory said, none of the top contenders has proved himself at the Derby distance.
Mabee, who owns Del Mar Race Course, employs five or six trainers at a time.
"I was about No. 4 or 5 on the list last year when the 2-year-olds came to the track," said Jory. "The top guys get the Nijinskys and the Nureyevs. I get the Habitonys and Bel Bolides. From that point of view, I've been very lucky to be the one to get Best Pal."
Mabee's wife, Betty, names most of the horses bred by Golden Eagle. Mabee told a California racing writer that his wife gave Best Pal his name "because everybody has a best pal, don't they?"
How they've run
Geldings in the Kentucky Derby in the past 20 years:Year. . Horse. . . .. Fin. . . . Odds
'89. ..Wind Splitter. 11. . . ..... 47 -11
'89. . Clever Trevor.. 13. . . ... . 52- 1
'88. . Kingpost. . ... 14 . . . . .. 16 - 1
'86. . Bachelor Beau. . 14. . . .. . 16 - 1
'84. . Raja's Shark. . 14. . . .. . .59 - 1
'83. . .My Mac. . . . . 14. . . .. ..10 - 11
'82. . Real Dare. . . . 19. . . . .. 8 - 11
'81. . Television Studio... 5 . . . . 7 - 11
'81. . .Beau Rit. . . . . 13. . . . . 7 - 11
'80. .. Rockhill Native... 5 . . .. . 2 - 1*
'80. . Execution's R'son. .11. . . . . 111 - 1
'75. . .Rushing Man. . .. 14. . . . .. 27- 11
'74. . .Sharp Gary. . . . 13. . . . .. 5- 11
'73. . .Forego. . . . . . 4.. . ... .. 28- 1
'72. .. Big Brown Bear. . 9. . . . . . 27 - 1
f-part of mutuel field.