Derby field has a little of everything

May 01, 1999|By JOHN EISENBERG

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- What a mess.

What a jumbled, incomprehensible, beautiful mess.

The Kentucky Derby is never anything less than an equine and human circus, but this year's 125th running is taking the theme to a new extreme.

There are geldings, fillies, a battery-charged horse, a female trainer, an Arab sheik, Bob Baffert's possible threepeat and, well, let's not forget about the owner who met his wife when she jumped out of a birthday cake.

Oh, and there's no clear-cut favorite, either.

"You can't say the Derby is boring this year," trainer Nick Zito said yesterday on a cool, clear morning at Churchill Downs.

Who is going to win? The first gelding since 1929? The fourth filly in 125 years? The first female trainer ever? The first sheik?

How about a horse named First American who's owned and trained by Brazilians?

Or Stephen Got Even, a Zito-trained colt named for owner Stephen Hilbert, who drew a salary of $69 million last year as the founder and CEO of Conseco, Inc., and, according to The Indianapolis Star, met his sixth (and current) wife, Tomisue, when she was working as an exotic dancer and popped out of Hilbert's stepson's birthday cake.

Then there's Valhol, the infamous Arkansas Derby winner, who is here only because his owner sued to get him in after his jockey was accused of buzzing the horse with an electrical device. (We can only hope the colt comes to the Preakness in two weeks, regardless of how he runs today. His batteries could come in handy if the power blows out at Pimlico again.)

How about racing's version of the Dow Jones 30 Industrials, Zito, Baffert and D. Wayne Lukas? They have combined to train six of the nine horses that have won the Derby in the '90s, and they're here this year with a combined seven horses, more than a third of the field.

Check this out: The last time Baffert entered a horse in the Derby and didn't win, Davey Johnson was the Orioles' new manager in May 1996.

"But no one has a lock on this race," Zito said. "No one has ever figured it out. And no one ever will."

It's always confusing, but trying to pick a winner this year is like trying to pick the winner of a Powerball lottery.

None of the 19 horses has consistently dominated, and several top contenders have no more than five career starts. They're works in progress, at best.

There also isn't an obvious, early front-runner with the speed needed to set the pace, meaning much of the field probably will try to run the first mile in fourth place, just behind the leaders.

Hello, gridlock.

"You're going to have to get lucky," Zito said. "You're going to have to get the right trip [around the track] and break from the pack at exactly the right moment. Someone is going to do that."

But who? Seldom has a Derby field been more, well, inscrutable.

There are two horses that didn't race in 1998 (Valhol and Desert Hero) and one (Worldly Manner) that hasn't raced in 1999.

The longest shot in the field, Answer Lively, won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile over this very track six months ago. But he's 50-1 today.

The only millionaire (in earnings) is a filly, Excellent Meeting, who almost ran in the Kentucky Oaks yesterday.

"It's a year where any number of scenarios could play out," Lukas said.

As always, a handful of horses don't belong. "About 10," said John Mabee, owner of General Challenge and Excellent Meeting, the Baffert-trained entry that figures to draw the shortest odds.

Of the others, just a few have the right mix of a quality trainer, quality jockey, solid track record and appropriate running style.

The pick here is Stephen Got Even, and no, not because of Tomisue Hilbert and the birthday cake. The colt has won all three of his starts in 1999, including a major Derby prep at Turfway Park. He's no favorite at 12-1 on the morning line, but he's the right kind of athlete for the Derby, big enough to hold up in the traffic, but nimble enough to skirt through openings.

Perhaps most importantly, his jockey is Chris McCarron, the Hall of Famer with two Derby wins and three seconds in his career. That's an advantage. With all things being so equal, why not take a top jockey?

But "Stephen" is just a narrow choice over Vicar, the Florida Derby winner trained by Carl Nafzger, a classic, old-school horseman who doesn't enter any horse in any race unless he's got a great chance to win.

Vicar is a dark bay colt who has raced seven times and finished out of the money only once, making him one of the most experienced entries in the race. The fact that Nafzger is entering him at all speaks volumes. Nafzger has entered only one other horse in the Derby in 30 years of training. That was Unbridled, the winner in 1990.

The call here is Stephen Got Even by a head over Vicar, with Prime Timber -- a Baffert horse always on the board -- running third.

If that comes down, after the craziest Derby week in years, don't be surprised if Tomisue Hilbert just up and pops right out of that Derby trophy.

Pub Date: 5/01/99

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