Arazi's owners find it takes more than money to cash Derby ticket

John Steadman

May 04, 1992|By John Steadman

What Arazi and the rich men who own him found out is that no amount of money, plus social connections, either foreign or domestic, will assure entrance into the exclusivity of the winner's circle. Certainly, not the Kentucky Derby.

But hold on. The loss is not at all distressing. To the contrary, it's a momentous gain for racing. A stimulus.

The Arazi pratfall at Churchill Downs underlines again that the number of dollars invested can't be correlated to buying immortality. All kinds of drum-beating and trumpet-sounding preceded the arrival of the copper-colored colt bred in Kentucky, raised and raced in France, and supposedly destined for inclusion among the elite of all-time.

This was a thoroughbred connection that involved imposing wealth and international prestige. The Arazi game plan was to fly off from Paris to Louisville, show up at post time, run off and hide from the opposition, pick up the check and book passage on the next plane to London, where he would challenge for the Epsom Derby on June 3.

It would be back-to-back Derbies, an unprecedented attainment, and then Arazi would be able to name his own price for future breeding services. The world's two most famous horse races would have been the property of Arazi, making him worth more, at least in bragging rights and conjugal relationships, than any four-legged creature on the face of the earth.

But that's not to be. A --ing rival, with the rather nondescript name of Lil E. Tee, bought for $2,000 as a yearling, after being bred in Pennsylvania, upstaged the gallant gentry who own Arazi. It cost $100,000 to breed Arazi, who was then purchased from Ralph Wilson (owner of the Buffalo Bills football team) for $350,000 by Allen Paulson, who, in turn, let Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum buy in for a slight charge -- $9 million to be precise.

Arazi had raced on both sides of the Atlantic, won eight of nine contests and put away earnings of $1,117,608. Jockey Pat Valenzuela, filled up with the optimism that prevailed and riding on the wings of hype, took a bold position. "Everyone else in the Derby is running for second place," he said of the mount who looked as good on the racetrack as he did on paper.

Still the best the wonder runner could do was an eighth-place finish in the Derby, won by Lil E. Tee, who raced at Calder Race Course last fall and was sold for $200,000 to Cal Partee, 82 years young, a native of Magnolia, Ark. The upset of Arazi was beneficial to all of racing.

It's a sport where having a checkbook is almost a can't-miss formula for success, especially if the owner is equipped financially to support the horse-buying habit. So, in a way, to humanize the outcome, it's a triumph for love of tradition over billionaire behemoths.

Arazi had arrived with more fanfare than a three-ring circus. A sponge-carpeted welcome mat awaited his footsteps. He seemed to have more security guards around him than the president. Every action was chronicled in word and picture. Yes, Arazi was the horse fit for a king, even if half of his ownership was held by a sheik.

The ultimate victor, Lil E. Tee, had won the Jim Beam Stakes and ran second to Pine Bluff in the Arkansas Derby. And he had never been out of the money in eight races. But finishing as a runner-up in the Arkansas Derby doesn't normally count for much when assessing the outcome, or what's going to happen, on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs.

Owner Partee tried to win the Derby on three previous occasions and never got any closer than third, in 1984, with At The Threshold. Meanwhile, Arazi wasn't in any way equal to the challenge. His regal reputation took a serious battering.

He finished a badly beaten eighth, had no excuses and faltered home with the dubious distinction of giving the worst performance of any odds-on favorite in the 118-year history of the Derby. Meanwhile, the applause and accolades went to the all-but-forgotten Lil E. Tee, whose strongest claim to earlier fame was being second in the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park.

Now he's the Kentucky Derby champion, readying for the Preakness, Belmont Stakes and a possible Triple Crown. This takes the onus off the money, proves that racing fortune can indeed come to those with a more pedestrian background.

For this reason, it's a victory that gives a semblance of fiscal sanity to a sport that is in desperate danger of devouring itself with spend-at-any-cost egotistical irresponsibility.

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