Preakness may fall to double whammy

JOHN EISENBERG

May 01, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Here is what happens: Arazi wins the Kentucky Derby. Wins big. A worldwide TV audience cheers his coronation. The cameras zoom in on trainer Francois Boutin in the winner's circle. Someone shouts: "Francois, what will you do now?" The Frenchman smiles.

"Mon ami," he says, "I'm going to EuroDisney!"

A little joke. The people from Pimlico are not laughing.

If Boutin and his horse do win tomorrow, they won't go to the new Disney park near Paris. But they might skip the Preakness and Belmont to take an unprecedented run at a trans-Atlantic Derby Double: first Kentucky's, then England's historic, sniffy Epsom Derby on June 3.

The idea understandably ashens Pimlico's Joe De Francis and anyone connected with the Triple Crown. It would reduce the Preakness and Belmont to junior varsity stakes. The recession-whacked American game would lose a chance to capitalize on a rare, real poster boy.

The colt still must win the Derby tomorrow, of course, but his talent is so apparent that there has been as much debate about what he will do after the race as during it. Why not?

It has all come about because Allen Paulson, the chairman of Gulfstream Aerospace, sold 50 percent of the colt to Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, of Dubai, whose family has spent a billion dollars on horses since 1970.

Paulson wants the colt to win the Triple Crown. But the sheik is a Cambridge-educated Anglophile with little interest in the spoils of American racing. He wasn't even coming to Kentucky for the Derby until Paulson put his foot down.

To the sheik, the Preakness is no more important than the seventh race at a Louisiana bush track on a weekday afternoon. He wants the Epsom, the world's oldest Derby, which his mega-investment has never delivered.

So the owners are split. But they won't fight. Theirs is an old business relationship that has included other horses and a few of Paulson's planes. When they shook hands on this deal, they agreed Boutin would settle any disagreements.

And here's the problem: Boutin has a similar disinterest in American racing. He was annoyed Paulson demanded the colt run in the Breeders' Cup last fall. He didn't particularly want the aggravation of coming here for a Derby that means little in Europe. It isn't hard to figure out that his perfect Preakness is no Preakness.

So you figure it's a done deal, right? You know they already have talked about it, probably made the decision. Anthony Stroud, an Englishman who is the sheik's racing manager, said yesterday that a plane was already reserved for a flight back to France Sunday, reiterating "Boutin has always said he preferred Epsom." (He also never has won it.)

Yet Boutin went on and on yesterday about the excitement Arazi has generated here -- about 1,500 people watched him work out yesterday -- saying it was "refreshing" to see. Sounding like someone warming to the idea of the Triple Crown.

Paulson also went on and on yesterday about the $5 million Triple Crown bonus. Sounding like a man who thought he still might win it.

The only person who didn't go on and on yesterday was the sheik -- never around, never quoted, just this mysterious figure with all the money. Who knows what he really is thinking?

What to make of it all? A wise betting man wouldn't wager a nickel on Arazi coming to Baltimore. It doesn't look good. There isn't anything we can do. (Well, we could mention Desert Storm to the sheik and, aw, forget it.)

No, this is just the unlucky fallout of a conflict of cultures that was inevitable in this day of global racing. And the sheik is no villain here. Putting local jingoism aside, the Derby Double is a fresh and exciting idea, a truly stunning prospect: winning races run in different directions on different surfaces in different countries, a month apart. Wow.

The sheik has put hundreds of millions into the hands of American breeders and owners, the captains of the industry. They don't complain when he overpays for yearlings at the Keeneland sales. They can't complain now. If they use his money, they must accept his yearnings.

(Incidentally, despite what some say, the Double isn't bad business. The colt, who will stand stud in England, would be just as valuable as a Triple winner.)

Neither is Paulson a villain. He did blunder in giving away his say by giving Boutin the tiebreaker, but it happened before the Breeders' Cup. And any horseman would take $9 million for a half-interest in a colt that hadn't won an American stakes race.

No, no villains. Just victims. The Preakness. Belmont. We can cry about it, but no one will listen. It's just the breaks.

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