Before the nominations came rolling in last month, Triple Crown officials were bracing for a 20% drop in horses.
"Not because of Arazi," said Tom Meeker, the president of Churchill Downs. "Because they aren't breeding as many horses."
But instead of about 70 fewer horses, there was a gain of 30, to 389, for this year's Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes. The fee for an early nomination was $600; the final nominating deadline, on April 1, comes with a $4,500 price tag, and after that the only way a 3-year-old can run in a Triple Crown race is for his owner to pay a supplementary penalty of between $50,000 and $150,000.
Arazi, coming from 13th place to win the Breeders' Cup Juvenile in an electrifying performance last November at Churchill Downs, is being compared to Secretariat, the 1973 Triple Crown champion. This comparison has not stopped horsemen from making nominations, because many of them are speculating that Arazi won't run in the Derby, if ever in the United States, again.
A French-based horse before his American debut in the Breeders Cup, Arazi underwent surgery on both knees shortly after the race and has only recently resumed work in France under trainer Francois Boutin. Arazi ran in the Breeders' Cup only after Boutin was subjected to considerable urging from Allen Paulson, the colt's American co-owner.
"Arazi has had his joints fooled with," trainer Shug McGaughey said. "Who is to say he won't have trouble with them again?"
McGaughey knows what it's like to go to the Derby with the favorite. His entry of Easy Goer and Awe Inspiring went off at 4-5 at Churchill Downs in 1989, and while they finished second and third, respectively, Easy Goer was one of the biggest disappointments in recent Derby history, losing by 2 1/2 lengths to Sunday Silence, a nemesis who would haunt him the rest of his career. This year, McGaughey has nominated 11 horses for the Triple Crown, second to Wayne Lukas, who has 26.
Phil Gleaves, whose Devil On Ice ran 10th in the Breeders' Cup, 26 lengths behind Arazi, has the colt in training at Gulfstream Park and nominated him to the Triple Crown.
"I nominated because everybody's wondering what Arazi will do," Gleaves said. "One horse isn't enough to frighten anybody away."
Arazi has been nominated to run in the Blue Grass Stakes, a traditional Derby prep, at Keeneland on April 11, but he is a longshot to run there. Ted Bassett, Keeneland's board chairman, went to dinner with Boutin last month when the trainer was in Las Vegas to accept Arazi's Eclipse Award as last year's champion 2-year-old. "I made the (Blue Grass) pitch," Bassett said, "but I don't think they'll be coming."
One of the plans for Arazi is for him to run one time, in a race at about a mile in France on April 7, and then ship to Louisville for the Derby.
Arazi overcame substantial odds in the Breeders' Cup, coming to Churchill Downs and winning in his first race on dirt and his first time at running counter-clockwise. He would be asked to be even more unusual if he didn't make his debut as a 3-year-old until April.
Middleground, the Derby winner in 1950, didn't start as a 3-year-old until April 11, but most Derby winners have gotten to the races much earlier in the year. In the last 10 years, for example, only two Derby winners--Sunny's Halo in 1983 and Spend A Buck in 1985--began their 3-year-old campaigns after March 22 and both of those colts ran before April. In five of the last six years, every Derby winner except Sunday Silence (1989) has been to the races by the end of January.
The Breeders' Cup Juvenile was a punishing race for several horses, and Bertrando, who ran second to Arazi, has been a late starter this year because of sore shins and a torn hoof. His first race probably will be in mid-March at Santa Anita.
"Racing is a lot like poker," said Eddie Nahem, who bred and co-owns Bertrando. "You might not start out with the best hand. But you don't want to fold, either. So you stay in the game, drawing more cards, hoping things will get better."
Last year, Hansel became the 12th consecutive favorite to fail to win the Kentucky Derby. The last Derby favorite to win was Spectacular Bid in 1979.
Saturday's $200,000 Fountain of Youth Stakes, a Gulfstream Park prep for the Florida Derby, had a definite California flavor when 11 horses were entered Thursday for the 1 1/16-mile race.
Pistols and Roses, winner of the Flamingo at Hialeah and the 9-5 favorite, will have to beat three horses from Santa Anita: Dance Floor, Vying Victor and Seahawk Gold. Dance Floor, second to A.P. Indy in the Hollywood Futurity, is from Lukas' barn and will be coupled with Goldwater in the betting. The stablemates are the 2-1 second choice, followed by Never Wavering at 6-1 and Vying Victor and Seahawk Gold, both 8-1.
Heberto Castillo rides Pistols and Roses. Chris Antley has the mount on Dance Floor and Craig Perret rides Goldwater. Other assignments are Corey Black on Vying Victor and Gary Stevens on Seahawk Gold.
Horse Racing Notes
Black Jack Road, a 7-year-old, won the El Conejo Handicap last year at Santa Anita and Frost Free, who is the same age, will try to win the $100,000 stake Saturday. Frost Free won the El Conejeo two years ago. His five rivals in the 5 1/2-furlong race are Anjiz, Cardmania, Apollo, Gray Slewpy and Thirty Slews. The high weights are Frost Free at 119 pounds and Card Mania at 116.
Exchange, who may run Sunday in the $100,000 Buena Vista Handicap, is on a five-race winning streak and was weighted at 120 pounds, two under Paseana and one under Brought To Mind, among the 12 horses invited to run in the Santa Margarita Handicap a week from Sunday. . . . The Buena Vista probably will be run in two divisions. . . . Other Santa Margarita invitations went to Colour Chart, Campagnarde, Laramie Moon, Re Toss, Winglet, Vieille Vigne, Damewood, Grand Girlfriend and Laura Ly.
The list of nominees to the $1-million Hollywood Gold Cup, scheduled for June 27, includes Best Pal, In Excess, Twilight Agenda, Dinard, Sea Cadet, Olympio, Dance Smartly, Miss Alleged, Itsallgreektome and Marquetry, who won the stake last year. . . . Eddie Arcaro turned 76 Wednesday. Fifty years ago, the year after he swept the Triple Crown with Whirlaway, Arcaro could have ridden either Greentree Stable horse, Shut Out or Devil Diver, in the Kentucky Derby. He picked Devil Diver, who was sixth, and Wayne Wright rode Shut Out to victory. Arcaro won the Derby five times, a record he shares with Bill Hartack.