When a true test is just another race

KEN ROSENTHAL

May 14, 1993|By KEN ROSENTHAL

The "O" word haunts him, like the "L" word haunts his fellow Arkansan, Bill Clinton. " 'Obsessed' is a press word," Prairie Bayou owner John Ed Anthony insists. "I don't fancy myself obsessed with winning the Kentucky Derby."

But here he is, with a chance to win his second straight Preakness, and some people wonder if it's enough. The Preakness is a jewel in the Triple Crown, but the Derby is the Derby, the signature moment of American racing, the one event that transcends the sport.

Anthony, 54, has never won it. He knows the Derby is an overcrowded mess in which the best horse rarely wins. He knows the Preakness is a far better measure of a horse's ability. But in such matters of the heart, rational thought doesn't always prevail.

The Derby is the stuff of dreams. The Preakness is a stop on the road. Everyone knew that Sea Hero was Paul Mellon's first Derby winner. Few realize that the colt would be the 85-year-old owner's first Preakness winner, too.

Jockey Pat Day didn't win the Derby until his 10th try. No one knows if such a futility streak exists among the Preakness jockeys. No one cares. This has been going on for more than a century now. The magnitude of the two races just isn't the same.

So, what will Anthony's emotions be tomorrow if he wins? He won the Preakness with Pine Bluff last year and the Belmont with Temperence Hill in 1980. Now he comes to Pimlico with the horse that finished second in the Derby, a horse that is again favored to win.

We all should endure such heartbreak, but that's not how such a man's mind works. One could argue that John Ed Anthony is obsessed with the Derby like Gov. Schaefer is obsessed with elections, obsessed like the Church Lady is obsessed with sin.

"John Ed Anthony is obsessed with a lot of things," says his partner and former wife, Mary Lynn Dudley, laughing over the phone from Little Rock, Ark. "He's a work-oriented man. He sets a lot of goals for himself. I've had people say, 'Would he be happy if he finally won the Derby?' I say, 'No, he'd want to win it twice.' "

Anthony made his fortune in lumber, and the mere fact that he maintains a business relationship with his wife indicates he's a shrewd customer. Unlike most owners, he doesn't operate a farm, reducing costs by boarding his horses elsewhere.

Over the phone from his office in Fordyce, Ark., he sounds not the least bit deflated by his latest Derby disappointment. Prairie Bayou, a horse with a late-running style, got forced wide heading into the stretch, but rallied for second.

It was the highest Derby finish by a horse from Anthony's Loblolly Stable, and a triumph in its own way. Disaster had struck two of the stable's previous five entrants. Vanlandingham, a future champion, fractured a bone and finished 16th in 1984. Demons Begone, the pre-race favorite, pulled up after a half-mile when he bled profusely in '87.

"Initially, I was conditioned to the disappointment that racing so frequently dishes out to people, but I was pleased the horse was running at the end, and gave a good effort," Anthony says. "The sinking spell came on Monday. I said, 'Darn, with a better trip, we could have gotten it done.'

"For many years, I'd hear the old-timers say, 'You've got to be lucky to win the Derby.' I disagreed. I thought if you did everything right -- got the right horses, used quality people -- that generally speaking, you'd get the job done."

In racing, nothing is that easy. Anthony assembled a stunning crop of 3-year-olds this season, and as recently as mid-April it appeared he might have five Derby contenders.

In all, his horses won eight Derby prep races. But that only prompted him to say, "We haven't won anything."

Still, he's smart enough to know when to stop. He backed off on Dalhart after his disappointing ninth-place finish behind 108-1 shot Rockamundo in the Arkansas Derby. And he resisted a last-minute entry with Marked Tree even though only 19 of the maximum 20 horses raced in Kentucky.

"By no means are we obsessed with winning any one race," says Anthony's trainer, Tom Bohannan. "The Derby gets so much press. It's a big goal for us. Maybe more is made of it than it should be. I'm not licking my wounds because of what happened two weeks ago. That's in the past."

The Preakness is the present.

"Believe me, if he wins, he'll have a great big grin on his face," Mary Lynn Dudley says.

But inside, he still won't be satisfied.

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