Why Derby favorite isn't favored to win

JOHN EISENBERG

April 29, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Not long after the arrival of a clear, chilly dawn yesterday at Churchill Downs, Prairie Bayou stepped sprightly from barn 45 and made the short trek to the track for a gallop. A mob of reporters followed. It happens every spring.

Twenty minutes later, when the horse was being bathed in front of the barn after his workout, a clattering crowd of photographers and cameramen closed in, clicking and whirring and recording every move. Just like always.

Every horse in the Kentucky Derby gets to play the star for at least a few minutes in the loud, crowded week leading up to the race. But only the favorite gets to play Michael Jordan.

It would almost make sense if the favorites also ran as well as Michael Jordan played.

They don't. Not nearly.

A Derby favorite hasn't won since Jimmy Carter was president. Since Bert Jones was quarterbacking the Colts. Since Mike Flanagan was a 27-year-old working on a Cy Young season.

It's one of the strangest streaks going in any sport anywhere. The last Derby favorite to win was Spectacular Bid in 1979. Since then a succession of momentary Michaels have gone splat, their falls taking various shapes. Easy Goer almost won. Mister Frisky didn't come close. Demons Begone bled. Arazi, the greatest flop of all, ran out of fuel at the mile pole.

None of that has anything to do with Prairie Bayou, of course. As the horse's reticent trainer, Tom Bohannan, said yesterday, "He's not going to know he's the favorite."

Hard to argue. Just as it's hard to argue that the streak is attributable to anything other than the sheer randomness of an unpredictable game.

Yet there are reasons for the streak. Reasons that any bettor or office-pooler would do well to consider before making a selection for Saturday. (The pick here, incidentally, is Bull Inthe Heather.)

For instance, it's simply a fact that the best horse often doesn't win the Derby. The race is the country's biggest, but the 20-horse fields skew the process with traffic jams double the average size. Such major talents as Risen Star and Hansel went on to win the Preakness and Belmont after getting blocked in the Derby.

As well, none of the horses have attempted the mile-and-a-quarter distance, turning all handicapping into little more than blind guesswork. The race usually is decided by which horse can run that last eighth of a mile, but no one knows which horses are up to it. There's no track record. The favorite is no more or less likely than a 30-1 shot.

Perhaps the biggest reason for the streak, though, is that young horses tend to build to brief peaks and a favorite already has reached his. That's why he's the favorite. But horses peaking in March and April tend to start dropping in May.

Trainer D. Wayne Lukas raised that very issue yesterday regarding Prairie Bayou, whose last two races were impressive wins in the Jim Beam and Blue Grass. "Those are two career-best races," Lukas said. "The question is whether he can run a third. You never know. I've had horses stay on that peak for two years. And horses that never came back."

Whether Prairie Bayou will rise or fall is hard to figure. The big-boned chestnut gelding ran seventh his first time out and as recently as December and January was coming up short in such obscure stakes as the Inner Harbor and Pappa Riccio. He was just another horse in the vast barn of Bohannan, the trainer for Loblolly Stable. But his last two months clearly have been the best among the Derby contenders. He also was 2-for-2 at Churchill Downs last fall, so he seems to like the track.

"The horse has a very strong finishing kick and tries his heart out every time he runs," Bohannan said. "Those are two things you like to see."

But has he already run his best race? Will it be 14 years and counting?

"Watching him work, I think he's going to run a big race Saturday," Lukas said. "But even that doesn't always get you what you want here."

As said Bull Inthe Heather trainer Howie Tesher: "He [Prairie Bayou] is a real nice horse, but it's a wide-open year. It's the kind of year where you can pick any horse and your friends can't call you stupid."

The real dunce cap belongs on the reflex that turns the Derby favorite into a momentary Michael every spring, when the favorite inevitably ends up beaten by a late bloomer such as last year's 17-1 winner, Lil E. Tee.

"The streak," Bohannan said, "doesn't bother me in the least."

But should it?

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