LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- With the Churchill Downs mystique adding to it, the relationship between the Kentucky Derby and the Breeders' Cup Classic has become a hot topic in the final hours before Breeders' Cup VIII.
A Kentucky Derby winner has won the past four runnings of the $3 million Classic, the world's richest horse race. That's a welcome trend for Unbridled and Strike the Gold, two of the 11 starters in the 1 1/4 -mile race -- especially with the Breeders' Cup being run at Churchill, where each won the Derby.
"It seems like everywhere you turn, people expect Unbridled to do well," said Carl Nafzger, the colt's trainer. "It's amazing. I suppose it's because he's a Kentucky Derby winner."
Early this year, Unbridled was a prime Horse of the Year candidate. The 4-year-old colt won last year's Classic at Belmont Park, then started 1991 with an eye-opening win in Florida.
But things haven't gone too well in the interim for Unbridled, who has won only one other race -- and the same goes for Strike the Gold, 0-for-6 since winning the Derby in May.
Nafzger and Nick Zito, Strike the Gold's trainer, say the return to Churchill may give them an edge. The distance, surface and routines are the same. Unbridled will even wear saddlecloth No. 7, which he wore in the Derby.
All week, Zito has been spewing superlatives about Strike the Gold, saying the colt is displaying the positive signs he showed before the Derby. On Monday, Churchill released a news sheet that briefly detailed the status of every horse in all seven Breeders' Cup races. Only one had a quote for a description, and it was Strike the Gold.
" 'Galloped like Man o' War' -- Zito," it read.
Nafzger said Unbridled also is at a peak. "His last work was as close to the final work he had before winning the Derby as I can remember," he said. "If the lanes open, he'll be right there."
Nafzger blamed physical and scheduling problems for Unbridled's 2-for-6 record in 1991. The colt bled in the Pimlico Special in May, had minor foot problems afterward, then had his pre-Classic schedule altered when a sloppy track led to a scratch.
"You're very fortunate when you target a race and make it on time," said Nafzger. "That happened last year with Unbridled, but it sure hasn't been that way for most of this year. Right now, he's on schedule 100 percent. We won't have any excuses Saturday. I'm not even worried about it raining because this is a very consistent track. It doesn't get slippery when it's wet."
Unbridled and Strike the Gold share a come-from-behind style that may have been compromised Wednesday when two speed horses, In Excess and Farma Way, dropped out. In Excess will go in the Mile, and Farma Way has been sidelined with a minor injury. If racetrack convention means anything, their defections would seem to help Black Tie Affair, a front-runner who may now have an easier time on the lead.
"That doesn't matter to me," said Ernie Poulus, Black Tie Affair's colorful trainer. "I wish they'd all be here. Every time my horse wins, people say, 'Well, you didn't beat anything.' So bring them all on."
Black Tie Affair, winner of his past five starts, is the Cinderella horse of the Classic. Poulus bought him for owner Jeff Sullivan for $125,000 in February 1989, and the 5-year-old has since blossomed into a "dream come true" for Poulus, a 65-year-old former semipro football player.
"He won the first race [in his latest streak] and I come back the next morning and say, 'He's real.' He wins the second, I come back, 'He's real.' Then the third, then the fourth, then the fifth. Five in a row.
"I can't tell you how proud I am of him. We'll be there Saturday. He'll win. Believe me, he'll show everybody what a great horse he is."
With Black Tie Affair a danger as the solo speed, Festin, another late-rallying horse, may get a change in tactics similar to what helped him win his most recent race, the Jockey Club Gold Cup. "I think we may try to be a little closer with In Excess and Farma Way out of the race," said trainer Ron McAnally.
Festin had a habit of coming from far behind until that last start, when McAnally altered his training pattern so that Festin would show more speed. McAnally said he will give Festin a quarter-mile blow-out to effect a similar result.
NOTES: Tomorrow's Classic marks the 43rd meeting among Derby winners; the last was Alysheba beating Ferdinand in 1988 at Santa Anita. The only such clash at Churchill Downs came in 1930 when Whiskery finished second and Clyde van Dusen 10th. . . . No horse has won the Classic twice, and only 2 horses have won 2 Breeders' Cup races: Miesque (1987-88) and Bayakoa (1989-90). . . . Tomorrow's Louisville weather forecast: Partly cloudy and breezy with a high of 45 to 50. A chance of showers was forecast for today. . . . Tracks throughout the country, including Laurel/Pimlico, began taking the Pick-7 bet yesterday. It is available until 5 minutes before post time for the Sprint (12:10).
Breeders' Cup Classic winners
1984.. .. Wild Again
1985.. .. Proud Truth
1986.. .. Skywalker
1987.. .. a-Ferdinand
1988.. .. a-Alysheba
1989.. .. b-Sunday Silence
1990.. .. b-Unbridled
a - Won Kentucky Derby the previous year
b - Won Kentucky Derby the same year