If Houston doesn't redeem himself today, his name could be changed to Galveston.
The flop of the Santa Anita Derby is favored in the Kentucky Derby Trial on opening day at Churchill Downs, and a win will carry him into the Derby itself next Saturday, when Awe Inspiring, Easy Goer's alter ego, is also expected to run.
Trainer Shug McGaughey, who has been reluctant to run Awe Inspiring as an entry with Easy Goer, the Wood Memorial winner and Derby favorite, indicated Friday that he would start both colts in the 115th running of the Triple Crown race. The horses race for the Phipps family, Ogden Phipps owning Easy Goer and his son, Dinny, owning Awe Inspiring.
McGaughey's change of plans makes sense, because Awe Inspiring, a late developer, won the Flamingo Stakes, a major Derby prep, at Hialeah in his last start.
Under Kentucky rules, the Phipps horses must be coupled for betting purposes in the Derby, but if they ran separately, Awe Inspiring would probably be the third betting choice, behind Easy Goer and Sunday Silence, the Santa Anita Derby winner.
Flown here from New York Wednesday, Easy Goer and Awe Inspiring were among the first horses on the track Friday morning. They each galloped 1 1/2 miles--a quarter of a mile farther than the Derby distance--in the eerie predawn darkness.
Jack Van Berg, winner of the 1987 Derby with Alysheba and a trainer without a starter in this year's race, was on his stable pony as McGaughey and his wife, Mary Jane, who is eight months pregnant, watched from the outside rail on the backstretch.
"Run 'em both," Van Berg said to the trainer's wife. "You might never get another chance to run two colts this good in the Derby."
Another horseman on the track was trainer Wayne Lukas, despite a painful back injury that has prevented him from straightening up for five weeks. Lukas gets on his pony these days only when Houston trains, and the $2.9-million Seattle Slew yearling also galloped 1 1/2 miles in preparation for the one-mile, $75,000 Trial, which is the final Derby preliminary.
Houston was undefeated in three starts until he ran fifth as the 4-5 favorite in the Santa Anita Derby. Sunday Silence beat him by 16 3/4 lengths.
Lukas is attributing Houston's sorry performance to the 95-degree heat at Santa Anita, although other trainers in the race said their horses were not affected because the humidity was low.
"The stalls as Santa Anita were about as ventilated as a coffin," Lukas said.
"But one thing about that problem is that it's easily corrected. We had to get the horse's electrolytes balanced. We've been able to replace his fluids with a supplement that we've put in his water, fed him directly and even given him intravenously. We feel that we've got the problem under control."
On a wet track listed as fast, Houston worked five furlongs last Monday in a rousing :58 3/5.
The weather has been hot and humid here this week. On Thursday, the temperature was in the mid-80s, missing the record for the date by one degree. There was the chance of overnight rain Friday, and rain again early today, and the temperature at race time might be around 80 degrees.
Six horses are entered in the Trial, which in 62 runnings has produced only five Derby winners, the last being Tim Tam in 1958.
Today's lineup, in post-position order, consists of Affirmed's Image, Belek, In His Cups, Pulverizing, Houston and One That Got Away. Houston carries 122 pounds, including Laffit Pincay, and spots the opposition three or five pounds per horse.
Trying to make himself comfortable Friday in a director's chair outside a lavishly redecorated barn office that was only a cinder-block room a week ago, Lukas borrowed a copy of the Daily Racing Form and checked the records of the opposition.
Belek, undefeated in three starts, is owned and trained by Louie Roussel, who gave racing Risen Star, last year's Preakness and Belmont winner after running third in the Derby. Affirmed's Image has won his last three starts. In His Cups has won four of his last five races. Pulverizing is a stakes winner from Maryland and One That Got Away won on grass at Keeneland the other day.
Lukas is hoping for an easy win for Houston.
"It's not an easy race," the trainer said. "There are some horses in there that know how to win."
Houston knew nothing else, until he ran up the track at Santa Anita.
Horse Racing Notes
Half of the horses in the Derby Trial--Affirmed's Image, In His Cups and One That Got Away--are not eligible for the Triple Crown races and Louie Roussel says that Belek will not run in the Kentucky Derby because he figures to have limitations beyond a mile. . . . Notation, who was beaten by Belek at Keeneland before winning the Lexington Stakes there on Tuesday, will run in the Derby and Chris Antley is likely to be his jockey.