LOUISVILLE,KY. — LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Let's start with one basic fact. The best horse won the Kentucky Derby yesterday. That isn't as obvious as it sounds. A sprawling field, a jockey's ride, lousy weather, an unlucky post position -- many are the things that can turn a race in strange directions. Not so this time.
Strike the Gold circled the pack as he rallied from 12th in the 16-horse field, outrunning the other contenders from the outside. In other words, he won taking the long route. He didn't need the rail. There can be no debating his superiority.
"The horse is the star here," trainer Nick Zito said.
If the horse is the star, though, the jockey is a close second. Chris Antley is a brilliant, troubled 25-year-old who made yesterday the epochal day of his racing life. His was a terrific ride. It wasn't a weaving, miraculous ride along the lines of Bill Shoemaker's on Ferdinand in 1986, but it was smart, subtle, utterly errorless.
The horse won the race, yes, but the jockey made a giant !B contribution. It has been said for a few years now that Antley would be the game's next riding star if he could stay off drugs and get his life together. It would be foolish to predict the latter, but his talent is now out there for everyone, not just the insiders, to appreciate.
"Chris is a young Angel Cordero," Zito said. "I've been saying it and saying it, and now maybe everyone will know. He's got everything -- strength, coordination, judgment. And he'll try just about anything. He is absolutely fearless."
All of the qualities contributed to his performance yesterday. Call it a lesson in intelligent, professional riding. Antley and Zito conferred before the race and arrived at a plan, and, more so than any other rider in the field, Antley followed the plan to the finish line. As they say in football, you couldn't have drawn it any better on a blackboard beforehand.
In years to come, people can point to this ride as the perfect example of how to win the Derby. The secret, year after year, is avoiding trouble. Staying out of the enormous traffic jams. Finding a spot to run the first mile without being pushed, saving your horse's best run for the stretch. That's what Antley did.
Breaking from the fourth gate, he let 11 of the 15 other horses beat him to the first turn. Sea Cadet, Forty Something and Corporate Report led the charge. Antley was running 12th, but he was five lengths behind the horse in front of him and almost two lengths ahead of the one behind him. In other words, he was all alone. Comfortable. Running well. No problems.
He stayed in that position, too, almost all the way around the backstretch to the home turn. He just cruised for a mile, sat in a cocoon, away from the trouble, waiting to make a run. That the horse had such a big run, again, illustrates where the basic credit belongs -- to the horse. But, if you will, Antley used his tank of gas just perfectly.
He began his run after passing the three-quarters pole. Running along the outside of the others, Strike the Gold moved up to 10th, then sixth. As he entered the far turn, Antley made a key decision. He saw the traffic along the inside and decided to circle the pack. It was a decision born of nothing other than the sheer confidence that his horse was the best horse.
"I knew when I was still four of five lengths off the lead that we were going to win the race," Antley said. "I just had so much horse still underneath me. I showed him the whip a couple of times and each time he accelerated a little bit more."
Fly So Free and Best Pal were making their moves, but Fly So Free never fired and there was no room on the rail for Best Pal for a brief, telling moment. Strike the Gold just swooped around the outside of everyone and took the lead at the head of the stretch. There was no challenge the rest of the way. The best horse won, period.
Antley raised a fist as soon as he crossed the finish line and, he confessed later, didn't really want to take it down. "I was just going, 'Wow, I won,' " he said, "and then as I kept galloping out I tried to [come to terms with] what I did win. It's something you think about from the time you know about racing. Winning the Derby. Amazing."
Some will agree: yes, it is indeed amazing Antley won a Derby. He has been suspended twice for using drugs, and was sitting out as recently as 15 months ago. He has been clean since coming back in March 1990, but he's still erratic -- he was 20 minutes late for a dawn workout this week, and when Zito called his hotel, he said he'd been talking to his girlfriend on the telephone.
That raised a few eyebrows and induced one Louisville columnist to suggest that Pat Day would be a safer choice as a rider for Strike the Gold. But the truth is that with Antley, as with any rider, you get the entire package. And with Antley, that package is a mercurial kid who can ride a horse like few people in this game. "He just did everything right today," Zito said. Everything.