LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- He is just a plain bay gelding.
Hardly the stuff Kentucky Derby legends are made of.
But, in this observer's opinion, Best Pal is going to be the first gelding since Clyde Van Dusen in 1929 to win the Kentucky Derby.
"It's as if God decided to make the perfect horse," a groom at Claiborne Farm is reputed to have said about Secretariat.
In the case of Best Pal, God made a typical, average, nice-looking bay colt. Then the veterinarian made sure he couldn't reproduce.
Throw a quarter sheet over his rump, look at his banged tail (squared off the way the English like to "turn out" a horse) and this plain bay gelding, raised on a ranch in California, could just as easily be breaking off into a canter on the all-weather gallops at Newmarket.
When Best Pal goes to the track, he wears a Yorkshire boot. It is a piece of burlap covering the heel of his left hind leg and it keeps his heels from brushing when he walks.
"But he only brushes at a walk," said Ian Jory, 33, his English-born trainer.
To see Best Pal gallop is to see a freight train on four legs. "Economy of movement!" a friend once exclaimed after he threw a clod of dirt at a young horse in a paddock and watched him perform a lovely extended trot across the ring.
That's Best Pal. He wastes no action when he works. He scoots. He skims. He was sent to the track merely to open gallop through the stretch at Churchill Downs yesterday and the clockers caught him going a quarter in 25 seconds.
Hansel may be handsome. Fly So Free might be flashy. But Best Pal has the look and feel of a stone-cold runner.
But that's hardly news. He won $1 million as a 2-year-old and in his only two Derby preps, was beaten by a total of one length when third behind Dinard and Apollo in the San Rafael Stakes and second to Dinard in the Santa Anita Derby.
"He was the victim of a speed duel with Apollo in the San Rafael," Jory said. "He had been away nearly three months, the other horse hooked him and the race was set up for Dinard, who we gave 3 pounds."
In the Santa Anita Derby, Best Pal was actually favored over Dinard, who eventually became the Kentucky Derby standout, before he was sidelined with a leg injury last week.
"I underestimated Dinard," Jory said. "I didn't have my horse fit enough. I was leaving something left for this race [the Derby] and didn't squeeze the lemon. I didn't do enough with him."
Dinard beat him by a half-length.
If any horse is being brought up to this year's Derby perfectly, it has to Best Pal. His races have been spaced a month apart. They have gradually increased in distance from 1 mile to 1 1/8 miles, now to 1 1/4 miles. He has a capable jockey, Gary Stevens, who won the Derby in 1988 with Winning Colors.
He's got stout enough breeding. His sire, Habitony, is sired by Habitat, a champion miler in Europe, and he's out of a King Pellinore mare. That is breeding on the dam's side that suggests he could run two miles if he had to. He also has the perfect Dosage, a mathematical computation indicating pedigree power.
"I have never, ever seen him this sharp," Jory said. "He is peaking at just the right time. His coat looks good. He's dappling. He's doing everything right."
The only real downer came when Best Pal drew the 15-hole in the 16-horse field. Only one other horse has won the Derby from the 15 post. That was Swale in 1984, and this outside position is going to be an enormous obstacle to overcome. It means Best Pal must take the overland route and be used early to get position.
"I'm disappointed, but I'm not going to scratch him," Jory said. "It also has its advantages. He won't be standing in the gate long. I'd rather be out there than on the inside."
There is also the chance of rain tomorrow, and it's an element that Best Pal relishes, Jory said.
In looking over the race, Sea Cadet is the acknowledged pace-setter. His rider, Chris McCarron, is going to jet to the front, then try to slow down the pace as much as possible. But off his sprinting pedigree, Sea Cadet is dubious to last at 12 furlongs, especially if he is pushed by Fly So Free.
Fly So Free drew the rail "and that means he's committed to try to go to the front," Jory said.
"I hope he hooks Sea Cadet, and then we come get him."
Jory admitted Hansel, from the 6-hole, will be tough. He thinks Strike The Gold, a colt that has trouble changing leads (switching forelegs), could be in for a tough trip at the head of the lane.
"There was a small field in the Blue Grass, and he could get to the outside and switch leads rather easily," Jory said.
The horse that could be a surprise, Jory thinks, is Mane Minister. "He's on the improve," he said about the California-based son of Deputy Minister.
John Mabee, who owns, bred and gelded Best Pal, said he had no one particularly in mind when he named the horse.
"He could be named after you," he quipped.
If the horse wins tomorrow, all of a sudden, Mabee is going to have quite a few new best pals.