LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- John Lennon was alive, ESPN didn't exist and the Baltimore Colts were a season removed from their third straight AFC East title.
It was the last time the favorite won the Kentucky Derby.
Jimmy Carter was in the White House, Roberto Alomar was in grade school and Cal Ripken was in Single-A ball.
Seventeen years, for those scoring at home.
Since Spectacular Bid came through as a 3-5 shot in 1979, 16 straight Derby favorites have lost.
Unbridled's Song, the dark gray colt with more shoes than Imelda Marcos, is expected to be the one to try to stop the streak today at Churchill Downs.
He is an 8-5 shot on the morning line, and it's a good thing he doesn't know.
The Derby favorites' losing streak is inexplicable but enduring, seemingly the work of a dark force.
Only three of the 16 have run in the money.
Their average finish? Ninth.
Hey, at least Greg Norman held on for second.
And it's not as if all the Derby favorites were just paper lions mistakenly pushed into the spotlight by misguided bettors.
Holy Bull, Easy Goer, Hansel, Prairie Bayou, Snow Chief and Chief's Crown -- all major stars -- are some of the favorites who flopped in the Derby.
"You would think at least one would have come in," said Jim Ryerson, trainer of Unbridled's Song.
None did. But six double-digit long shots have become Derby winners over the same 16-year period.
"You'd go crazy trying to figure that out," said Bud Delp, who trained Spectacular Bid.
Statistically, favorites win one of every three races on an average day at the track. Why haven't they won a Derby since Michael Jordan was in high school?
The fact that there wasn't a great 3-year-old in the 15 years between Spectacular Bid and Holy Bull probably has contributed. The favorites weren't talented enough to dominate.
Nor has it helped that the fields are twice the size of an average race; traffic jams in the Derby make it that much harder for the best horse to win.
"It's our hardest race," said Delp, who is based in Maryland. "If you don't have a super horse, you need some breaks."
The bettors also blow it now and then, backing the wrong horse on poor advice from the racing press. Remember Arazi, the equine Elvis? Mister Frisky, the Puerto Rican flash? Each ran eighth as an overrated favorite.
Mostly, though, the streak is just attributable to happenstance.
"I get asked every year why the favorite never wins," Delp said. "That's easy. I put a whammy on 'em."
But seriously. . .
"I think it's just a coincidence," Delp said.
Hard to argue. Any connection between 16 races in 16 years with 16 different sets of horses is just a random spin of racing's whims.
There have been some close calls. In 1988, undefeated Maryland-bred Private Terms was backed by just $3,400 more than Winning Colors. Private Terms ran ninth as the favorite. Winning Colors won.
Since then, Easy Goer and Prairie Bayou have run second as the favorites.
For awhile in the weeks leading up to this year's Derby, Unbridled's Song almost seemed a lock to end the streak at last. He is clearly the best horse in this crop of 3-year-olds.
"I'd swim in a river of gasoline carrying a torch to get my hands on him," said Bob Baffert, trainer of Cavonnier, the Santa Anita Derby winner.
But now he will leave the starting gate with his excuses already lined up and ready to fire.
He has so many excuses that the public might even relegate him to second choice.
That probably won't happen in the end, but there is real skepticism about the horse's health.
He has a cracked hoof and a sore heel, injuries that forced repeated shoe changes and had Ryerson contemplating scratching earlier in the week.
He has a skittish personality that is hardly a good fit for a day at the races with 130,000 fans.
Finally, he has the 19th post position, the outside post in the auxiliary gate.
Ryerson and owner Ernie Paragallo have insisted that the bad post isn't bad, that it beats getting stuck in a traffic jam on the rail, that they're actually happy with the post.
Charlie Whittingham, trainer of Corker, isn't buying the act.
"They might as well not show up," Whittingham said about having to race from the far outside post.
Stung by such remarks, the normally understated Ryerson has talked tough as the race neared.
"Do any of the other horses worry you?" he was asked yesterday.
"The only thing I'm worried about is making it through the crowd to the winner's circle," he said.
Arazi's jockey, Patrick Valenzuela, said the same kinds of things before the Derby. ("We could win racing around the outside fence!")
Holy Bull's trainer, Jimmy Croll, said it would "take a running horse" to beat him.
L Year after year, the Derby favorites look big and run small.
Unbridled's Song looks bigger than most. He could be the one, shoes and all.
But that whammy. . .
Post time: 5: 32 p.m. today
TV: Chs. 2, 7, 4: 30 p.m.
Where: Churchill Downs, Louisville, Ky.
Length: 1 1/4 miles
Field: 19 3-year-olds, all carrying 126 pounds
Purse: $1,154,800 if 19 start.
First place: $854,800.
Second place: $170,000.
Third place: $85,000.
Fourth place: $45,000.
The field. (Page 5c)
Pub Date: 5/04/96