Take this sure thing under advisement

JOHN EISENBERG

April 29, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Arazi, the equine Elvis, left the building yesterday. The quarantine building.

He made the short trip to his stall via motorcade. A car with flashing headlights preceded him. Two followed. Arazi rode in a long silver van, wearing red suede shoes -- OK, ankle warmers -- and accompanied by his entourage, his homeboy French colt Akiko.

A hundred reporters were waiting by Barn 45 on the backside at Churchill Downs. It was shortly after sunrise on a cold, clear morning. A pale sliver of moon persisted. Arazi emerged from the van to a resounding volley of camera shutters.

He's already the winner of Saturday's Kentucky Derby -- if hyperbole and acclaim rate any advantage on the track.

His every move comes in capital letters this week -- Leaves Quarantine! Eats a Light Lunch! -- while the rest of the field goes about in solitude. Which is only right, right? They're just running for runner-up, right?

Well . . . hold on.

"I wouldn't bet your kid's education money," D. Wayne Lukas said, standing by his barn, around the corner from Arazi and the paparazzi. "He's probably not a good betting proposition."

That from a trainer who has two colts entered but understands Arazi is the best in the field. By far. That acceleration in the Breeders' Cup was enough to make the hardest hardboot weep. Yes, the small chestnut colt is a natural.

"The only thing wrong with him is that I don't have him," Lukas said. "But, see, the Derby is a funny, funny thing. It doesn't always go by the Hollywood script. Strange things happen."

Such as: the best horse not winning. Happens all the time.

"It's probably going to take bad luck for Arazi not to win," Lukas said, "but racing luck is a big part of the Derby. Arazi is the favorite, but this thing is not over."

Arazi will, indeed, arrive at the starting gate with a long list of possible excuses. His double knee surgery last November. His lack of prep races. (One since the Breeders' Cup.) His nine-hour flight from Paris just six days before the race. But Lukas, who won the Derby with Winning Colors in 1988, discounts all that.

"It's foolhardy to think the horse won't be ready," he said. "These people [training Arazi] know what they're doing. The horse will be ready to run."

But will the horse be ready for the Derby? That, said Lukas, is the relevant question.

The primary problem is traffic, which skewers the Derby as a race to be confidently handicapped. Traffic as in the 19 horses scheduled to run Saturday. Traffic as in twice the number of runners as in an average race.

It is a Derby standard, choking traffic full of crackpots, dreamers and long shots, and it makes for Derby winners such as Winning Colors and Strike the Gold, who flopped afterward. It can make for an unpredictable mess.

The best 3-year-old in 1988 was Risen Star, who won the Preakness and shattered records in the Belmont. What happened in the Derby? He got blocked off from an inside lane at the head of the stretch and finished third in a field of 17.

Then there was Spend A Buck, a reasonable speed horse who beat superior colts in the 1985 Derby. How? Because the horse planning to challenge him on the lead, Eternal Prince, got blocked coming out of the gate and lost in a field of 13. Unchallenged, Spend A Buck ran away.

The best 3-year-old back in 1953 was Native Dancer, a 7-10 Derby favorite attended by hullabaloo similar to Arazi's. But he got roughed up on the first turn and never made up the ground. It was his only loss in 22 starts.

Now comes Arazi, the equine Elvis, who should win, but . . .

"Nineteen horses," Lukas said. "And half the riders are in the Derby for the first time. So, put together a lot of traffic and a lot of inexperienced drivers, and what do you have? A bad traffic jam."

The issue is whether Arazi gets caught in it. His style is to come from far off the pace with a dazzling stretch run. He can't do it Saturday, at least not from too far back. Too much traffic. "They'll have to lay closer to the lead," Lukas said. "I'm sure they will."

But no one can be sure of much else. Yes, Arazi should win. He not only possesses rare talent, but also comes along in a year that, said Lukas, is "vanilla" for American 3-year-olds. It's a lock, right? A no-brainer, right? Elvis is alive and eats oats for dinner, right?

Well . . . hold on. Let's just say this to Allen Paulson and Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, the colt's co-owners, who are feuding over where to send the colt after he wins the Derby: Better let 'em run the race first.

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