A favorite worthy of the name

May 04, 2000|By John Eisenberg

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Of all that Neil Drysdale is worried about as the trainer of the probable favorite in Saturday's Kentucky Derby, the race's 20-year jinx on betting favorites is, to him, easily the least important.

"I don't bet on horses and I couldn't care less," said Drysdale, the trainer of Fusaichi Pegasus, a bay colt installed as a 9-5 favorite after yesterday's draw. "The only thing I know is, mathematically, one of these days, a favorite is bound to win."

There's no way of knowing if this favorite will be the one, especially with an anticipated full field of 20 horses clogging the track.

But this we do know: Unlike many of the losing Derby favorites over the past 20 years, Fusaichi Pegasus is no fraud.

He has royal bloodlines, a top trainer and a strong racing record, a trifecta of evidence few of the previous 20 favorites have matched.

"He's a deserving favorite, a legitimate favorite," said trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who has won the Derby three times since 1995.

That hasn't always been the case since Spectacular Bid's victory as a 3-5 choice in 1979.

Of the 20 favorites who have since lost, only three have come back to win the Preakness or Belmont, and only a few have gone on to have above-average careers. Many were just overhyped, a product of a variation of Derby fever.

In 1990, bettors fell hard for Mister Frisky, a colt who had scored most of his 16 wins against inferior competition at a track in Puerto Rico. He finished eighth at 2-1 odds on Derby day.

In 1995, the favorite was a smallish filly, Serena's Song, who had never raced against males. She finished near the back of the pack.

The next year there was another "super horse," Unbridled's Song, who went off at 7-2 despite chronic foot problems that affected his Derby training. It was a minor miracle that he ran well enough to finish fifth.

The worst example was Arazi, who was so impressive winning the Breeders' Cup Juvenile as a 2-year-old that he was pegged as the next Secretariat before the 1992 Derby, even though he'd undergone ankle surgery after the Juvenile and barely raced leading up to the Derby. He finished eighth as a 9-10 choice, the biggest bust in Derby history.

Arazi's and the 19 other losses aren't attributable to any single factor, of course. Frankly, the 20-for-20 streak is probably just a coincidence. Favorites still have won 48 of the 125 Derbies overall, a solid .384 winning percentage.

Still, this long run of losing has given rise to what must be the strangest prevailing handicapping philosophy in racing history: How do you bet the Kentucky Derby? Throw out the favorite and go from there.

But while that has worked for two decades, which is more than you can say for most handicapping concepts, this might be the year to change back.

"`Pegasus' is a real star," rival trainer Bob Baffert said.

He was a star before he started racing -- actually before he was named, even. He's a son of Mr. Prospector, one of the world's eminent stallions, and his maternal bloodlines trace to Northern Dancer. A Japanese venture capitalist paid $4 million for him at the 1998 summer yearling sale at Keeneland, the breeding industry's most prestigious sale.

"Everyone was talking about him," Baffert said.

ka-10 Such high-priced yearlings often do little on the track, but Fusaichi Pegasus is an exception. Since losing his first race in December, he has won four in a row, beating the best on the West Coast in the San Felipe Stakes and the best in the East in the Wood Memorial.

ka0 His huge win in the Wood last month assured him of the hot seat as the Kentucky Derby favorite -- a seat that has dumped 20 horses in a row.

Sure, there are imperfections in his resume that will get highlighted after the fact if he becomes the 21st straight favorite to lose. With just five career starts, he's one of the more inexperienced horses in the field. (Lukas' High Yield has started 12 times.) And his tendency to dump exercise riders and balk on the track has raised concern that he might freak out in front of 140,000 fans on Derby day.

But there's a reply to those doubts -- his trainer, Drysdale, one of the best in the business.

A transplanted Englishman now based in California, Drysdale is of the old school of trainers who don't run a horse in a race unless it can win. He has brought only one horse to the Derby before, and A. P. Indy probably would have won in 1992 if not for an injury that forced a Derby-morning scratch.

When Drysdale is confident, which he clearly is, that's relevant. It appears he isn't the least bit concerned about his horse's inexperience or erratic nature.

"I'll take talent over experience any day," he said. "And frankly, I'd be more worried if he were being docile, because that's not him."

Among Derby favorites, Fusaichi Pegasus probably has the best shot at winning since Holy Bull, who ran 12th at 5-2 odds in 1994. Holy Bull was easily the best horse among the 3-year-old crop that year. He just had a bad day on a muddy Derby track.

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