Derby likely has what you're looking for

May 06, 2000|By JOHN EISENBERG

LOUISVILLE, KY. -- As always, with the Kentucky Derby, it's a question of what you want.

You want a down-to-the-wire whodunit, er, whowonit? This year's Derby, set for today at Churchill Downs, has the look of one.

"Usually there are two or three horses in the field that run great every time," trainer Bob Baffert said, "but this year there are, like, 10. It's the first Derby I've come to with real depth."

But you don't want depth? You want something to root for, a sentimental favorite? There's a good one this year. There's Hal's Hope, a 20-1 shot trained by Hal Rose. It's a movie waiting to happen.

Rose, 88, is a frail, gentle guy who makes a living training claiming and allowance horses, a world away from the Derby, which he has entered only once before. He underwent quadruple bypass surgery last summer with Hal's Hope already in his barn, showing promise.

"They told me I'd be in the hospital for eight weeks and I made it home in three," Rose said yesterday, validating the racetrack axiom about a trainer never dying with a good 2-year-old in the barn.

But you don't want sentiment, you say? You want a social statement instead? Again, there's a good one this year. Two, actually.

There's Marlon St. Julien, the first African-American jockey to ride in the Derby since 1921. He's on Curule, an ultra-long shot.

"What this means to me is the world," St. Julien told The New York Times.

There's also Jenine Sahadi, the trainer of The Deputy, one of the favorites. A female trainer with a Derby horse is almost a contradiction in terms, seeing as only nine others have entered horses in the race going back to 1875, and none has won.

Beginning to fathom the obstacles and sheer close-mindedness women face in this male-dominated sport?

"I notice this week that there are a lot of questions about what I'm wearing and how many karats there are in my wedding ring and things like that," said Sahadi, 37, a Californian who worked in racetrack publicity before becoming a trainer.

The Deputy, a driving colt coming off a win in the Santa Anita Derby, probably gives Sahadi a better chance of winning than any female trainer in the history of the Derby.

"She knows what she's doing," rival trainer D. Wayne Lukas said.

But you don't want a social statement, you say? You want a political statement instead? No problem. There's Impeachment, a colt owned by the Dogwood Stable, a partnership whose president, Cot Campbell, admits naming the horse during the Clinton impeachment hearings. The connection? Impeachment's bloodline chart includes such horses as Misconduct and Criminal Type.

"I'm comfortable with whatever conclusions people want to make," Campbell said.

But this isn't politics, of course. This is racing, the so-called sport of kings, a vast playground for the wealthy. You want all that? You want the money and power and sense of entitlement beyond all reason? No problem. You can take your pick from silver-spoon entries this year.

There's Curule and China Visit of Godolphin Racing, the stable owned by shiekh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, the prince of Dubai. The shiekh owns approximately half of the world economy, and the other half (or so the story goes) belongs to Prince Ahmed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, head of the Thoroughbred Corp., a stable running a colt named Anees today.

There's also Exchange Rate, owned by a naturalized American named Satish Sanan, a computer-industry multi-millionaire who reportedly spends more money on sale horses than anyone in the world.

And of course, there's the Derby favorite, Fusaichi Pegasus, owned by a Japanese venture capitalist, Fusao Sekiguci, who visited the barn yesterday morning sporting a multi-limo entourage and women in kimonos.

That scene unfolded, by the way, right around the corner from where Johnny Unitas was visiting with Hal Rose.

Only at the Derby, only at the Derby.

If you want a more human-sized rooting interest, there's Deputy Warlock, owned by a tool-and-die businessman from Cincinnati who authorizes his trainer, Ken McPeek, to buy exactly one horse a year.

To have that one purchase make it to the Derby as a legitimate candidate is a serious piece of horsemanship.

But you don't care about that, you say? You want a local horse to root for? Sorry, that's the one element missing from the Derby this year. A Maryland connection.

Sure, there are jockeys who used to ride at Laurel and Pimlico (Kent Desormeaux on Fusaichi Pegasus, Chris McCarron on the Deputy). And there's High Yield, Lukas' best hope, bred by a Pennsylvania woman whose son owns Elk Manor Farm in Maryland.

Pretty weak.

But you don't care about that, you say? You don't want politics, sentiment, money or local ties from your Kentucky Derby?

Like everyone else, you just want the winner?

No problem.

The Deputy finished three-quarters of a length behind Fusaichi Pegasus in the San Felipe Stakes in March, and The Deputy has since improved more. Of all the Derby horses, The Deputy and Bob Baffert's Captain Steve looked the best in training this week.

Call it The Deputy, Fusaichi Pegasus and High Yield, in that order.

A woman trainer makes history in the 2000 Kentucky Derby.

You want that, you got it.

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