Rockamundo bid breath of fresh air

JOHN EISENBERG

April 28, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Given a choice between having logic or luck on their side, most horsemen would choose the latter. Racing's golden rule is that a prayer often is as useful as a plan.

Consider the absurd fact that John Ed Anthony and Gary West each own one horse scheduled to run in Saturday's Kentucky Derby. It's a long proposition bordering on ridiculous.

Anthony is the deep-pocketed Arkansas lumberman whose Loblolly Stable is so potent this year that it had five Derby contenders crisscrossing the map for various prep races. As recently as mid-April there was the possibility that three Lobolly horses would run in the Derby.

West, a businessman from the dot on the racing map that is Omaha, Neb., had only an obscure colt named Rockamundo with the bad habit of holding his breath during races. Just a fortnight ago, Rockamundo left the starting gate at the Arkansas Derby at odds so long they couldn't be recorded on the tote board.

That West has the same number of Derby horses as Anthony is evidence that intelligent, promising plans can run a dead heat with utterly inexplicable fortune.

A couple of disappointing prep performances whittled the Loblolly entry from three horses to one, Prairie Bayou, winner of five of eight starts and currently the 5-2 Derby favorite. Meanwhile, Rockamundo scored one of the sport's biggest upsets ever by winning the Arkansas Derby at 108-1.

Anthony figures to have the better shot at winning, but it's been 14 years since a favorite has won the Derby, and Rockamundo is now listed by most handicappers as one of the seven or eight contenders. West, who owns a telemarketing company, said, "I don't think any horse has improved as much as ours in the last 45 days."

Of course, few horses nominated for the Triple Crown had more room to improve. Rockamundo was a respectable 2-year-old who ran second in a Grade II stakes race behind champion Gilded Time, but he went bust at the beginning of his 3-year-old season, running 11th and fifth in the Louisiana Derby and Remington Derby.

West and trainer Ben Glass couldn't explain it. But Mark Guidry, a veteran who rode the colt in the Remington, solved the mystery.

"Mark said that when the horse stopped running [in the turn] he hit the horse in the belly and heard a gasp," Perkins said. "Mark said maybe he was holding his breath. I'd never heard of that, but it turns out it happens a lot. Someone told me that Secretariat held his breath in the Wood Memorial."

It happens primarily to young horses short on seasoning. "He's ++ still excitable," Glass said, "and when he'd get to the races he'd get excited and hold his breath."

Rockamundo was shipped to the Arkansas Derby, a top Derby prep, but there was doubt that he would race. A workout four TTC days beforehand decided his future. His jockey hit him on the belly to make him exhale. He turned in a fabulous work.

"Had he not worked well, we wouldn't have entered him [in Arkansas]," West said. "We would have gone to Plan B, which was unknown."

In other words, the horse was one bad workout away from being dropped to allowance races. The Arkansas Derby bettors treated him accordingly. The tote board went as far as 99-1.

"I wasn't insulted [by 108-1]," West said. "To be honest, I didn't blame the people. The horse didn't look like he belonged in the race."

He won spectacularly, with the fastest split times recorded in any Derby prep this year. A star was born.

"I've gotten hundreds of pieces of mail," West said. "People can relate to a 108-1 winner. He was a nobody until two weeks ago. I'm not a linguist, but I'm told his name means 'Rock the World' in Spanish. He sure did that.' "

The horse paid $426 on a $2 win bet at Santa Anita, where the race was simulcast. According to West, it was the second-highest payoff in the history of California pari-mutuel betting.

For West, it was the moment of a 13-year racing lifetime. He started out buying claimers -- the first was actually named Joe Blow -- and has graduated to six-figure yearlings, but never considered making the Kentucky Derby.

"We haven't even been close until now," he said.

Suddenly, he's there, and might even have a shot -- if his horse doesn't hold its breath.

"That big crowd . . . " Glass said, shaking his head.

Ah, it's no reason to worry. Too logical.

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