Derby's best race pulls up short of starting gate


May 04, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The Kentucky Derby is not up to par this year. It is the UnDerby. There is neither a superstar nor a gut-grabbing story among the 16 entries. That doesn't mean it will be uninteresting -- in fact, with four favorites rated closely together, there is a good chance of a tingling finish. One must have standards in these matters, though. The UnDerby evidence is there.

The winner of the Santa Anita Derby, which has produced three of the last five Kentucky Derby winners, is not here: That is Dinard, out with a pulled leg tendon. The winner of the Wood Memorial, often the East's top Derby prep, is not here: That is Cahill Road, also injured. The winner of the Arkansas Derby, Olympio, is being rested.

It wouldn't be the UnDerby had those three colts been here. Dinard would have been the favorite, Cahill Road the second choice. As it stands now, though, this is essentially a race for runners-up. The top two betting choices, Fly So Free and Best Pal, are coming off losses in their last races. That's a Derby first, at least as far as anyone can remember.

But then, this is the UnDerby. Charlie Whittingham doesn't have a horse entered. Shug McGaughey doesn't have a horse entered. Jack Van Berg doesn't have a horse entered. Wayne Lukas, who spends millions on Derby candidates, could do no better than a long shot that has raced only four times.

The UnDerby. There isn't a horse that has captured the fans' imagination. A couple of possibilities didn't work out. Meadow Star was an unbeaten filly whose earnings went to a children's charity, but she ran dully in the Wood and isn't here. Jackie Wackie developed a cult following as an unbeaten Florida colt trained by a man who'd spent his career with claimers, but he finally lost and isn't here.

Then there was Big Al's Express, the Horse of the Year if the sole criterion were gathering newsprint. A horse that had never raced, not once, he was vanned cross-country from San Francisco (with one stop when the van broke down) and, plop, sat down in the starting gate during training for the Derby Trial. Then he ran last by 31 lengths and needed sedatives afterward. Needless to say, he isn't here.

The UnDerby. Without a compelling story to steal headlines, the most talked-about issue has been the Dosage Index controversy, a Byzantine matter important only to track junkies. The index is a rating based on pedigree, the lower the rating the better, and no horse above a certain number has ever won the Derby. Strike the Gold, one of the four favorites today, is above that certain number. Gripping, huh?

Hey, even the weather might cooperate with the UnDerby theme. Skies have been blue and temperatures warm all week in Louisville, a far cry from last year's cold and gloom, but today's forecast is for booming thunderstorms, a turn that could throw the race open even to those in the mutuel field. (Where are you, Big Al's Express?)

The UnDerby. Not in recent memory have the cases for the favorites been so full of holes. Fly So Free? He is a languid finisher and could get outrun as he did last time out, in the Blue Grass Stakes. His training times were consistently slower than those of Cahill Road. Besides -- and this isn't his fault -- a 2-year-old champion, which he was, hasn't won the race since 1979.

Best Pal? The second betting choice lost last time out to Dinard in the Santa Anita Derby. He is a solid colt who has won more than $1 million, but doesn't have much natural speed and drew a terrible post position, the 15th, meaning he will need to sprint to the first turn to keep from getting lost in the pack. It could be a long, tough trip, which means trouble here.

Hansel? He was beaten consistently over the winter by Fly So Free, but has won his last two, leading some to believe he is approaching a peak. Wayne Lukas is not sure. "He gets the cupcake schedule award," Lukas said, meaning the colt has not raced against much tough competition. "He's coming up to the race well, but can he do it against this competition?"

Strike the Gold? He beat Fly So Free in the Blue Grass, but that was only his second career win. Churchill Downs oddsmaker Mike Battaglia dropped the colt from third to fourth choice after a slow workout this week. And there's that Dosage Index question. "You know that is gnawing at [trainer] Nick [Zito]," Lukas said. "You can't just ignore 100 years of history."

Remember, these colts are the favorites. The rest of the field doesn't offer much, filled out at the end by the usual cast of woebegones that don't belong. Sea Cadet, the horse with no tail, should take the early lead, but what happens after that is strictly guesswork.

There could be a tight, exciting finish, but don't be fooled. It is not the Derby it could've been. With Dinard, Cahill Road, Olympio, Meadow Star and Jackie Wackie in the starting gate, this could have been one of the best, most stimulating Derbies in years. What will take place today is diminished by comparison.

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