'Song' is Derby's class, but own worst enemy He'll be hard to beat -- if he can keep cool

April 26, 1996|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

The Kentucky Derby favorite is a head case.

Unbridled's Song, heavily favored to win the 122nd Derby on May 4, is excitable and temperamental. When paraded in front of 140,000 screaming fans at Churchill Downs, he just might blow a gasket.

Yet the formidable gray colt is widely regarded as the most talented thoroughbred of his generation. His Achilles' heel may be his pre-race problems.

"Never before in Derby history has there been more discussion about a horse's behavior in the paddock and post parade," said Jim Bolus, a Kentucky Derby historian from Louisville. "But if he doesn't come unglued, and he wins the Derby, I think he has an excellent chance to win the Triple Crown."

Eight days from now, all eyes will lock onto rambunctious Unbridled's Song when he leads as many as 19 other 3-year-old colts and geldings onto the Churchill Downs track.

Bettors may anoint him an even-money favorite, but horses such as Skip Away, Diligence, Cavonnier, Alyrob and Louis Quatorze -- not to mention the five trained by D. Wayne Lukas -- seek starring roles in racing's paramount production.

"Unbridled's Song is definitely the best horse in the race," said Steve Haskin, the Daily Racing Form's Triple Crown specialist. "If you look at a shedrow of horses and ask anyone to pick out the super horse, 100 out of 100 are going to pick him. He's such a big, imposing horse who carries himself like a champion.

"But his mental attitude is the question."

In the paddock and post parade before the Fountain of Youth Stakes, Feb. 24 at Florida's Gulfstream Park, Unbridled's Song bucked, sweated and pitched a fit. After expending so much energy leading up to the race, he faltered and finished second.

After that, his trainer, Jim Ryerson, worked with the headstrong colt in the paddock and made changes in his pre-race routine. Unbridled's Song responded with an overpowering victory March in the Florida Derby and a less-impressive win April 13 in the Wood Memorial.

"He's been getting a little bit better every race," Ryerson said of his horse's unruliness. "But there's no way you can simulate the crowd on Derby Day."

Haskin's suggestion: "I'd say hold your bets until you see him on the racetrack after he's left the backside. . . . He'll run into a wall of noise. People who've bet against him will be screaming, trying to upset him. I've seen a lot of good horses just lose it out there, even more there than in the paddock."

In addition to his temperament, Unbridled's Song must overcome history.

No favorite has won the Kentucky Derby since Spectacular Bid in 1979. And no winner in 12 runnings of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, which Unbridled's Song won last fall, has triumphed in the Derby.

So the race is, once again, inscrutable. Right?

"In one way, it's the most predictable race on earth," said Ed Fountaine, who writes the "Bloodlines" column for the Daily Racing Form.

And that way, as even casual observers know, is the Dosage way. Devised in the early 1980s, the Dosage Index rates horses' stamina based on their pedigree. It has been uncanny in identifying winners of the Derby, when developing 3-year-olds race a demanding 1 1/4 miles for the first time.

A horse that qualifies under the Dosage Index, as well as under a second system that rates performance as a 2-year-old, is a "dual qualifier."

In last year's Kentucky Derby, five horses were dual qualifiers. Three of them finished first, second and third -- Thunder Gulch, Tejano Run and Timber Country. They produced a $480 exacta and $2,099.20 trifecta.

This year's dual qualifiers are Unbridled's Song (by Unbridled, who won the Derby in 1990), Cavonnier, Editor's Note, Diligence, Honour and Glory and Matty G.

Cavonnier won the Santa Anita Derby. Matty G trailed the field in the Santa Anita race.

Diligence, fifth on a muddy track in the Blue Grass Stakes, is owned by George Steinbrenner and trained by Nick Zito, who won two of the last five runnings of the Kentucky classic with Strike the Gold in 1991 and Go for Gin in 1994.

The other two dual qualifiers, Editor's Note and Honour and Glory, are part of Lukas' unprecedented five-horse Derby stable.

Lukas' other three are Grindstone, winner of the Louisiana Derby and runner-up in the Arkansas Derby; Victory Speech, who has not won a stakes race, and Prince of Thieves, a hard-charging second after a troubled trip in the Lexington Stakes.

The Sonny Hine-trained Skip Away, although not a dual qualifier, is the Derby's second choice. In the Blue Grass Stakes, he broke the 1 1/8 -mile stakes record, skipping over a wet-fast track in 1 minute, 47 1/5 seconds.

"He may not have the Dosage," Hine said, "but I wouldn't trade my position with anybody right now."

Louis Quatorze, another contender trained by Zito, finished second in the Blue Grass, six lengths behind Skip Away.

And then there's Alyrob, disqualified to last for interference in the Santa Anita Derby after streaking up for second.

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