COMMENTARY : Nobody Has Clue About Derby


Handicappers across America are scrutinizing the field for the Kentucky Derby, trying to judge who is the best horse, but this intellectual exercise is like a trick question on some fiendish professor’s final exam.

Most likely, there is no best horse in the field -- a horse whose sheer superior ability will enable him to dominate his rivals no matter how the race is run. If this race were run five times, it could easily produce five different winners. Even the most opinionated bettors are befuddled. In a week at Churchill Downs, I have yet to hear anybody say, “I love --- in the Derby.”

The only member of this 19-horse field who has run consistently well is Prairie Bayou, who has won his last four starts and has a perfect six-for-six career record in distance races run over fast tracks. Moreover, he has the stretch kick that traditionally is associated with Derby winners. With these credentials, he is a logical favorite.


Yet Prairie Bayou was considered a second- or third-stringer in his own stable until recently, and he hasn’t been managed as Derby contenders usually are, with a spring campaign designed to bring him to peak condition on the first Saturday in May.

The gelding has been racing steadily for the last 6 1/2 months. He has never run a single outstandingly fast race; his speed figures are no better than horses who might be 50-1 shots Saturday. Whatever his virtues, he is a poor betting proposition at odds of 5-2.

In the absence of a dominant horse, the 119th Derby is apt to be decided by tactics, racing luck and -- most important -- the early pace. If the first half-mile is run very fast, speed horses will collapse and somebody will swoop past the field in the manner of such horses as Strike the Gold, Unbridled, Gato del Sol and so many other Derby winners of the past. But when the pace is slow, it is much more difficult for come-from-behind runners to rally around or through a congested field and overhaul leaders who are still strong.

Because two prominent contenders, Personal Hope and Storm Tower, are both front-runners, most people assume that the pace of the Derby will be fast and destructive. But genuine contenders rarely are responsible for an insanely fast pace in the Derby; sprinters and impossible long shots are the ones who will zoom the first half-mile in 46 seconds or less and destroy legitimate speed horses in the process. There seem to be no such horses in Saturday’s field (unless the Panamanian colt El Bakan goes on a kamikaze mission).

The riders on Personal Hope and Storm Tower are both veterans who will want to avoid a suicidal head-and-head battle for the lead, and they are going to do everything they can to slow the pace. I guess that the first half-mile of the Derby will be run in about 47 seconds and, if that happens, horses sitting near the lead will have a significant advantage. Accordingly, I am going to throw out all of the habitual off-the-pace runners: Bull Inthe Heather, Dixieland Heat, Kissing Kris, Wallenda and (with trepidation) Prairie Bayou.

Personal Hope and Storm Tower should be running one-two, stalked by Union City and Rockamundo and perhaps a couple of other non-contenders. Storm Tower appears suspect at 1 1/4 miles, however, and Personal Hope is not nearly as good as his Santa Anita Derby looked. A powerful bias was carrying front-runners to victory on the rail during that entire day at Santa Anita, and Personal Hope stayed on the optimal part of the track.


The horses who will be sitting just behind the leaders have better credentials. Rockamundo gave the best performance in all of the major Kentucky Derby preps, chasing a sub-46-second pace and drawing away to win the Arkansas Derby at odds of 108-1. The astronomical price was fully warranted; the colt had never in his life done anything to suggest that he was a top-class horse.

If he repeats that performance, he can win Saturday -- and he’ll be a long shot again. But there are no Derby precedents for a winner like Rockamundo. This race is almost always won by horses who have been meticulously prepared for this one objective -- not for horses who come out of the blue.

Union City’s second-place finish in the Santa Anita Derby was visually unimpressive -- he had no punch in the stretch -- but he was hindered by the bias that helped Personal Hope. Trainer Wayne Lukas has been pointing him toward the Derby for months, and Union City has trained extremely well here. The colt appears ready to run the race of his life. He is my selection, although, having picked a Derby winner as recently as 1991, I suspect I have already used up my quota of winners for the decade.

I will bet the Derby, hesitantly, with an exacta box combining Union City, Rockamundo and the mutuel field -- numbers 4, 8 and 12. The seven horses consigned to the field are supposedly the worst ones in the race, but this Derby lineup is so weak at the top and relatively strong at the bottom that the field includes some plausible contenders, such as Mi Cielo and Tossofthecoin. This is a year when there is merit in getting seven horses for the price of one.