One trainer's view: Derby is for winning, not entering

May 01, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

Once again, we come to Derby fever season. Once again, a handful of otherwise intelligent thoroughbred owners and trainers will succumb to temptation, lose their senses and enter horses in the Kentucky Derby that have no shot at winning. Because they can't settle for just coming close to making it.

But what do we call the opposite? Is there a name for choosing not to enter a horse that probably belongs in America's most famous race?

"I just call it being realistic," Dickie Small said the other day in his barn at Pimlico.

Small trains for Robert Meyerhoff, whose colt, Concern, won the Arkansas Derby, a major Kentucky Derby prep, with a stunning rally from 20 lengths back last weekend. The win qualified as that stamp of Derby-caliber legitimacy that the connections of every top 3-year-old seek. Thirteen of the last 16 Arkansas Derby winners have raced in the Kentucky Derby.

"[Concern] will be better than some of the horses that run in the Derby," Small said.

But he won't be entered.

Neither will Looming, another top Meyerhoff-owned 3-year-old in Small's barn, winner of a series of Maryland stakes.

"I want this to sound right: These are really good horses," Small said, "but they're not going to win the Kentucky Derby. And if you can't win the race, there's no use running.

No one remembers who came in second."

All across the country there are trainers and owners desperately seeking justification, even far-fetched justification, for entering their horses in the Derby. Small has what they want, but doesn't want it.

"It's just an instinctive thing," he said. "You know when you have the kind of horse that truly belongs in the Derby."

He is in good company with his prudent approach. Charlie Whittingham waited 26 years to bring a horse back there, then won with Ferdinand in 1986. Mack Miller took only one horse there until he won last year at age 71 with Sea Hero. The best trainers are those who understand the entrance standards -- and the dangers of running a horse over its head.

"One of the biggest mistakes you can make with horses is running them where they don't belong," Small said. "They get discouraged pretty easily."

He has trained plenty of top 3-year-olds in his two decades on the backside, but taken only one to the Derby. That was Meyerhoff's Broad Brush, the sire of Concern and Looming, and the third-place finisher in the '86 Derby.

"He was the real goods," Small said. "You can't quantify it; those special ones are just different, on a higher plane. Broad Brush could have won the race, he was good enough. And he still didn't win. And it meant nothing. Coming in third meant nothing."

The lesson?

"You only go to the Derby when you have the best horse," he said, "like [trainer] Jimmy Croll does this year [with Holy Bull]. Otherwise it's not worth going."

There are risks every time a horse races, but the risks are far greater in the Derby. The horses never have gone 1 1/4 miles carrying 126 pounds; many are too young for the task physically. And the oversized field of as many as 20 entrants causes dangerous traffic jams.

"The Derby breaks down more young horses than any other race," Small said.

Some owners and trainers still see the possible gains as outweighing the risks, and you can't say they're wrong. Favorites often lose in the Derby because of the traffic and the sheer unpredictability of youth. On the right day, if your luck holds, you can win with a beatable but talented horse such as Sea Hero. Impeccable credentials are not a must.

"I don't make fun of anyone for going to the Derby," Small said. "Some of the horses don't belong, but if you're the trainer and your owner wants to go, you can lose the job if you balk. So you just go.

And strange things do happen. A lot of great horses got beat in the Derby."

But the odds of winning with an average horse are long, and if you take the long-haul approach to the business of running a stable, as Meyerhoff and Small do, it makes no sense to take the shot.

"No sense at all," Small said. "There are lots of other good races out there. [Concern and Looming] are good enough to have long careers."

It is all in keeping with Meyerhoff's basic plan. He prefers not to have his horses pushed when they're young and more vulnerable, saving their best for when they're more mature. His big winner, Valley Crossing, was a commonplace 3-year-old who didn't win a Grade I race until he was 5.

Besides, with Meyerhoff getting close to achieving a long-standing goal of turning Broad Brush into a big-league stallion, it best serves his purpose to make sure that Concern and Looming hang around for years earning paychecks.

That's just fine with Small. "I've been to the Derby once, and I admit, it's an incredible thing," he said, "but I don't need to go back unless I have a chance to win. The temptation just isn't there for me. I have no need to go just to see my horse in the post parade."

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