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HORSE RACING / ARKANSAS DERBY : Breathtaking Victory by Rockamundo

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Even Rockamundo’s owner, Gary West, said that he couldn’t blame bettors for having no confidence in his colt.

“Anybody who looked at the Daily Racing Form would say that we were crazy to run in this race,” West said.

This was about an hour after West and his wife, Mary, had collected $357,498 Saturday at Oaklawn Park--$300,000 from the purse and $57,498 from what Gary West bet on Rockamundo, who won by 1 1/2 lengths in the 57th and craziest Arkansas Derby before 70,022.

The tote board listed Rockamundo at 99-1, but that’s because it didn’t have room for the extra digit. The Wests’ horse was 108-1 and paid $218, $66.80 and $18.80 after jockey Calvin Borel found room along the rail for Rockamundo to pull ahead in the last sixteenth of a mile.

Dalhart, who with his entrymate, Over Jack Mountain, went off at 7-10, finished ninth in a 10-horse field after racing close to the lead for a fast three-quarters of a mile.

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Kissin Kris, best in a three-horse photo for second place, was 15-1 and combined with Rockamundo for a $2 exacta that paid $1,809.20. Gary West said he bet $200 across the board on Rockamundo and had a $30 winning exacta ticket.

Rockamundo went into the $500,000 race with one victory in nine starts, in an $8,300 allowance race at Ak-sar-ben in Omaha last July. He had lost seven in a row since, was beaten by almost 22 lengths in his last two starts and has been ridden by different jockeys in his last four races. Now he is headed to the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 1, thanks to some suggestions Ben Glass took from Borel after the 26-year-old jockey worked Rockamundo for the first time last Tuesday.

“I thought they were doing the wrong things with this horse,” Borel said. “They said he was having trouble breathing. I think it was because they were taking the horse back in his races. He’s a nervous horse, and that might have been why he had been holding his breath. I just let him roll once we got started.”

Known as an unwilling horse in the mornings, Rockamundo worked five furlongs for Borel in 1:00 3/5, the fastest time of the day at that distance.

Before the workout, Glass had convinced himself that Rockamundo wouldn’t be running in the Arkansas Derby.

“I told them before the workout that he had to work good, and he’s a horse who’s never worked good,” Glass said. “But then when he hit us with a bullet work, we decided to run.”

Instead of racing far back, as he had while running 11th in the Louisiana Derby at the Fair Grounds and fifth in the Remington Park Derby in Oklahoma, Rockamundo helped set Saturday’s early pace, slightly behind Foxtrail all the way. Foxtrail’s fractions were 22 4/5, 45 4/5, 1:09 4/5 and 1:35.

In the stretch, Foxtrail was trying to hold on, and Dalhart, outside him, was losing ground. When Chris McCarron hit Foxtrail left-handed, he came off the fence enough for Rockamundo to slide through.

“The horse ran through the hole without any real urging from me,” Borel said.

Kissin Kris nosed out Foxtrail for second place. “My horse didn’t get tired,” McCarron said. “We were just outrun.”

Foxtrail was a head better than Mi Cielo and in fifth place, another head back, was the Bill Shoemaker-trained Diazo, who reared at the start, then got rolling on the backside.

The time for 1 1/8 miles was 1:48 1 1/5 seconds slower than the stakes record that the filly Althea set in 1984.

With Dalhart having run himself out of the Kentucky Derby, and Loblolly Stable’s other horses, Marked Tree and Ozan, failing to win in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on Saturday, Mike Smith will be left with Prairie Bayou, the Blue Grass winner, to ride at Churchill Downs.

“My horse (Dalhart) washed out (sweated profusely) in the post parade,” Smith said. “That’s something he’s never done before. Maybe it was the crowd that bothered him. It might have taken the mental edge off. But otherwise, we had no excuse. He came up empty. He was dead at the head of the lane.”

Allen Paulson, who owns Diazo, was not discouraged by his colt’s first stakes start. “I’d still like to run him in the Kentucky Derby,” Paulson said. “He didn’t get beat by that much. He got beat by less than two lengths.”

Corby, a seventh-place finisher as the favorite in the Blue Grass at Keeneland, is another Paulson horse scheduled to run in the Derby.

The Wests, who own a telemarketing firm in Omaha, bought five yearlings in 1991 and Rockamundo, at $30,000, was the cheapest. The colt is a son of Key To The Mint out of Crystal Cup, a Nijinsky II mare.

“Winning with a horse like this is what makes the game so special,” Gary West said. “Strange things happen in this game, and we continued to have faith in this horse because it’s been such a fluky year for the 3-year-olds.”

The Kentucky Derby, at 1 1/4 miles, is two weeks away.

“That’s enough time for this horse,” Ben Glass said. “He’ll be ready the day after tomorrow.”

Arkansas Derby Notes

Rockamundo paid $427.40 to win at Santa Anita. The record for a win payoff at Santa Anita is $673.40, for Playmay on Feb. 4, 1938. There was $215,000 in the win pool, $854 of it on Rockamundo. . . . The exacta at Santa Anita paid $3,526.80


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