COMMENTARY : Derby Handicappers Are Very Impressed but Not Convinced


From horseman to analyst to grandstand fan, the handicapping theme for the 116th Kentucky Derby, featuring co-favorites Summer Squall and Mister Frisky, seems to be: very impressed, not totally convinced.

The road that led here has been fraught with confusion from the outset of the 1990 season. Twenty-three horses won the 32 significant prep races run this winter and spring; 10 of them will answer the starter’s call Saturday.

Some are peaking. Some have peaked. Some are heading in the wrong direction, and some just don’t belong. But it’s that way every year. The following is an assessment of the Derby field, listed in post-position order:

1--Dr. Bobby A. Trainer Steve DiMauro said this week that this race looks like a tough spot for his horse. An honest, hard-working horseman, DiMauro has a very good opinion.


2--Killer Diller. Heartened by his victory in the Grade III Garden State Stakes and his improvement in longer races this spring, the connections of this Pleasant Colony colt are taking a shot. A very, very long shot.

3--Pendleton Ridge. Well-meant and winless when he accompanied stablemate Burnt Hills to New York this spring, he arrived here still a maiden. He has not trained well at Churchill Downs following his driving fourth-place finish in the Wood Memorial.

4--Video Ranger. Some are encouraged by the fact that he closed ground for place behind Mister Frisky in the speed-biased Santa Anita Derby. Usually, that’s a good tack, but not here.

5--Mister Frisky. Freak or fraud, that is the question. Hall of Fame trainer Laz Barrera is 2 for 4 in this race and seldom fires big-race blanks. Jockey Gary Stevens jumped off Silver Ending, committing early to “the longest-striding horse” he has ever ridden. But will the colt’s 13 victories in Puerto Rico mean anything Saturday? Did his three bias-enhanced victories at Santa Anita prepare him for the grueling challenge, in which he will be tested early, often and longer than ever before?

6--Real Cash. He placed gamely behind Silver Ending in the Arkansas Derby, showing marked improvement over his fainthearted Santa Anita Derby try. But he is best with an early lead, which will be difficult, if not impossible, for him to secure.

7--Fighting Fantasy. The probable pacesetter, he was beaten 40 lengths by Summer Squall in their two meetings. He has no chance to win but will take some speedy contenders with him and help set up for the late runners.

8--Country Day. A long shot with a chance, this wide-racing stretch runner benefits from what figures to be a hotly contested pace, the added distance and a jockey switch to Jose Santos. Still, he will need a career effort to win.

9--Unbridled. This year’s training star should have won Gulfstream’s Fountain of Youth, then rebounded to win the slowly run Florida Derby. A useful third in the wet-track Blue Grass--from which trainer Carl Nafzger considered scratching--he made the kind of effort reminiscent of Genuine Risk when she finished third in the Wood as a prelude to her 1980 Derby victory. He is peaking beautifully.

10--Pleasant Tap. In the clever hands of Chris Speckert, this son of Derby winner Pleasant Colony was an excellent second in Keeneland’s Lexington Stakes and is another expected to benefit from a lively pace. Forced to alter his prep schedule due to virus, the question is whether he has had enough conditioning.

11--Silver Ending. The “now” horse. Making his third start this year, his Arkansas Derby victory two weeks ago was a career best and one of the better prep efforts this season. Prepared masterfully by Hall of Famer Ron McAnally, Silver Ending has the type of explosive mid-race move that has won many Derbies. Like the other late runners, however, he will need a good trip.

12--Thirty Six Red. No 3-year-old, including Saturday’s co-favorites, has shown his kind of courage. But his gut-wrenching victories in New York’s Gotham Mile and Wood Memorial do not figure to help him Saturday, especially since he will have to force the pace from his outer position.

13--Burnt Hills. Another who had his prep season altered by illness, he bounced back from a disappointing third in the Gotham with a game second in the Wood. But he seems to need the lead in races around two turns, and Saturday’s route seems a furlong too far.

14--Summer Squall. No one has ever questioned this colt’s ability. But class is not the issue here; scheduling and regimen are. Forced to delay his 1990 debut when he bled following an early-season workout, trainer Neil Howard has been forced to play catch-up. After a game debut behind the rapid sprinter Housebuster, Summer Squall won the Jim Beam and Blue Grass with style. But that schedule seems to have taken its toll. He has lost some weight recently and on Wednesday failed to gallop out strongly following a short workout. The Derby will be his fourth race in 49 days, and his outside position won’t make his pace-stalking trip any easier. It’s a lot to ask, even of “the best horse.”

15--Land Rush. With more Derby experience than any trainer in history, D. Wayne Lukas might finally be right on schedule. Given one month between the San Felipe and the Blue Grass and three weeks between the Blue Grass and Derby, Land Rush figures to run his best race. In finishing second to Summer Squall in Lexington, Angel Cordero was forced to attack the easy-leading winner prematurely or suffer certain defeat. When Pat Day set the leader down in earnest, he sprinted away. Land Rush held his ground despite racing on the same left-fore lead, failing to switch over and gain new momentum because he was unsure over the wet footing. And if Unbridled has been the training star this week, then Land Rush was a close second. His outside position is not as detrimental as it looks.

16--Power Lunch. Even the highly positive Lukas admitted he was considering entering this colt in an allowance race on Saturday’s card.

This handicapper’s nightmare is a racing fan’s dream: 1. Land Rush 2. Unbridled 3. Silver Ending 4. Mister Frisky.