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If They Like You, You’ve Lost

If you’re ever at a Kentucky Derby, do yourself a favor. Take some advice: Don’t bet the favorite. Skip right past anything less than 10-1.

Look, Notre Dame wins football games, Nicklaus won golf tournaments, the Yankees won World Series. But the chalk doesn’t win the Kentucky Derby. It belongs to the don’t-figures.

For the 11th year in a row, the Derby was not won by the post-time favorite Saturday.

You had a horse in there who had never been beaten. You had one that lost only once--and then to the best sprinter in the country.

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And then, you had Unbridled in there.

Now, Unbridled is the biggest horse in the race. He changes leads like a comedy dance team. You have to be careful he doesn’t trip himself. He was bred in Florida, which is not considered overly fashionable here in hard-boot country.

He wasn’t anything like unbeaten. In fact, he’d won only once this year and only three times in his life. Man o’ War, he wasn’t.

He did win the Florida Derby in March, but he got beat in another stake by the likes of Shot Gun Scott and Smelly. He finished fifth in the Tropical Park Derby, again trailing Shot Gun Scott and Country Day, whose connections thought so little of their chances they were scratched from the Derby this week. He was beaten in the Blue Grass only two weeks ago by two other horses who were loaded in the starting gate with him Saturday--Summer Squall and Land Rush.

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So, he won the Kentucky Derby Saturday by 3 1/2 lengths. Go figure.

He looked like a good show bet or someone to try an exacta with. But Kentucky Derby champion?

There will be, conservatively, 20,000 people on the backstretch who will say, “I had him! Handicapping, all the way!” by tomorrow. But the reality of the 116th Kentucky Derby is that the betting public at Churchill Downs wagered $5,248,021 on the Derby and, of that, $2,541,953 was bet on unbeaten Mister Frisky and once-beaten Summer Squall. They bet $848,953 on Mister Frisky to win, and $814,076 on Summer Squall. They bet $213,832 on Unbridled.

I studied the form after the race and I still don’t think he can win it. How can you get excited about a horse who has run 10 times and won three? Even Fighting Fantasy, who went off at odds of 111-1, had a better record.

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How did it happen? Well, until horses talk, we’ll never be sure what happens in a horse race. But Unbridled’s jockey, to hear him tell it, was the least surprised person of the 128,257 at Churchill Downs Saturday. Here was the scenario as Craig Perret saw it:

Perret inherited the mount on the horse when his regular rider broke an ankle in a spill. In Perret’s first race on Unbridled, the horse wobbled in sixth at odds of 6-5. As he jumped off the horse, Perret had a confession for the trainer. “I done it wrong,” he admitted. Trainer Carl Nafzger was not about to argue. “I think so, too,” he told the rider.

Explained Perret:"We thought he could lay three or four lengths off the pace and put his horse away whenever he wanted. We found out he likes to sit and wait with you. When he gets good and ready to run, he lets you know.”

Unbridled does not like to be rushed. He likes to smell the flowers along the way. Enjoy the scenery. He is what they call around the race track a “growthy” colt. English translation: clumsy in the corners.

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He had an unhurried trip Saturday, lollygagging along in the caboose of the race until it finally got his interest.

“I was just trying to pick up spots with him,” Perret explained. “He’s a big strong horse with a big long stride and I was trying to find the right spots at the right time. When I gave him a little clue, he just picked up the race. I didn’t anticipate picking up Summer Squall till inside the eighth pole.

“I didn’t know if he could beat Summer Squall (who beat him by nearly four lengths in the Blue Grass). I didn’t know what to expect, but I seen Pat Day (on Summer Squall) hitting his horse left-handed and as I went by, I said, ‘You in trouble!’ ”

Jockey Day knows all about trouble. He has now finished second more than Germany. He has won more races at Churchill Downs than any rider in history--but the Kentucky Derby isn’t one of them. This was the third year in a row he’s finished second in this race. He’s a better place bet than a Republican in Boston.

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But that’s not the bad news. The bad news is, Pat Day had the ride on Unbridled and took himself off to board Summer Squall. Pat Day has enough trouble finding his way in the Derby winner’s circle without contributing to his difficulties by getting off winners. Day was just another victim of bad handicapping at Louisville Saturday.

How did it happen? Perret has it figured out: “When we got to Churchill Downs, I said to the trainer, ‘Carl, he’s worked up four lengths better than he was.’ I was wrong. When we had the next work, I said, ‘Carl, I was wrong. He’s worked up eight lengths better.’ ”

Added Perret: “I had the golden trip. Every horse has to get ready to peak, and this is what happened to this horse. Every bridge he could, he crossed.”

He went by his field in the Kentucky Derby as if they were tied to a tree. “I wasn’t concerned if he was 10th or 12th. I knew he would have a good hard run at them,” Perret said. In the stands, trainer Nafzger trained his glasses on the field and called the race for the 92-year-old owner, Frances Genter. “He’s making a nice move,” he called out. “We’re 10th, Craig has got the horse relaxed. We’re eighth, now we’re fifth, now we’re second! Mrs. Genter, you have just won yourself a Kentucky Derby!”

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After 53 years in racing and at age 92, Genter won with the first horse she ever had in the Derby.

And Mister Frisky, the unfrocked wonder horse who finished a wobbly eighth and took $1,232,264 with him?

“At the five-sixteenths pole, he had about all he wanted,” said his rider, Gary Stevens. “I asked him for response at the three-eighths pole and was doing it easy and I thought, ‘Here we go again!’ I thought the race was ours. Then, he began bobbling, which means he wasn’t handling the race track very well. But I’d hate to blame the race on the race track as far as he got beat and what not, but he just didn’t seem to be running his best race over the race track today.”

The track had nothing to do with it. Mister Frisky lost because he was the favorite. They should give a Derby horse five pounds off for carrying that handicap. They talk about track “bias.” This track’s bias is against Derby favorites. It’s a good thing Man o’ War never got in this race. An Unbridled would have knocked him off, too.

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THE FINISH

Lengths Place Horse Back 1. Unbridled -- 2. Summer Squall 3 1/2 3. Pleasant Tap 9 1/2 4. Video Ranger 12 1/2 5. Silver Ending 13 3/4 6. Killer Diller 15 1/4 7. Land Rush 16 1/4 8. Mister Frisky 19 1/4 9. Thirty Six Red 22 1/4 10. Power Lunch 22 1/4 11. Real Cash 24 3/4 12. Dr. Bobby A. 25 1/2 13. Pendleton Ridge 28 14. Burnt Hills 43 15. Fighting Fantasy 49


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