According to trainer Wayne Lukas' analysis of the Kentucky Derby, Personal Hope had no more chance of winning the race than an aging plow horse.
If Lukas' rationale holds water, Personal Hope, the Santa Anita Derby winner who was fourth, should have been 100-1 instead of 8-1 at Churchill Downs last Saturday. His trainer--Mark Hennig, 28--is too young. So are his owners--Lee and Debi Lewis, who are in their 40s. They haven't been around long enough to pay their dues. Wet behind the ears, goes Lukas' thinking, doesn't finish first in Louisville.
After owner-breeder Paul Mellon, 85, and trainer Mack Miller, 71, won the Derby with longshot Sea Hero, Lukas, who finished 15th with Union City, waxed philosophically about what it takes to win the race. Because the favorite hasn't won in the last 14 runnings, even an unconventional theory deserves to be heard.
"Maybe there's something at work here that we don't know about," Lukas said. "Maybe there's some kind of a greater force at work that's deciding all these things. Training a horse right, having the right jockey and having a horse ready on Derby day might have nothing to do with it.
"Look at Mr. Mellon and Mack Miller. They've paid their dues in the sport. Maybe they just had this one day coming because of all that. You look at some of the other Derby winners and the same thing pops out."
Cal Partee, owner of last year's Derby winner, Lil E. Tee, was in his 80s. The late Frances Genter, owner of Unbridled, the 1990 Derby winner, was in her 90s. Charlie Whittingham, a legend minus a Derby portfolio, was in his 70s when he won the Derby twice in the 1980s. Bill Shoemaker, who rode Ferdinand, Whittingham's Derby winner in 1986, was in the twilight of a distinguished riding career.
Even Lukas' Derby winner, the filly Winning Colors in 1988, can be part of this curious denominator. Winning Colors was owned by Gene Klein, a free-spending owner with a heart condition whose days were numbered.
Considering all that, it might be wise to throw out traditional handicapping methods for next year's Derby. Just check the participants and ask yourself: Who does Somebody Up There want to win?
If, as Lukas suggests, that's the way it works, designating this year's Derby winner was no snap. This was a Derby chock-full of horsemen carrying the same kind of baggage as Mellon and Miller:
--Bill Shoemaker, now training horses, is a quadriplegic who was at Churchill Downs in a wheelchair with his first Derby starter.
--Skip Shapoff, the elderly trainer of Silver Of Silver, was hospitalized because of a flare-up of a heart condition the day before the race, and his twin sons standing in the winner's circle, dedicating the race to their ailing father, would have been a heart-pumping tableau.
--Tony Tornetta, the owner of Storm Tower, died of cancer a week before the race.
--And Leland Cook, the owner of Dixieland Heat, also travels with a wheelchair since surgery earlier this year for a blocked artery in his leg.
It was eerie the way Miller reacted in his Churchill Downs box seat when jockey Jerry Bailey snaked the 12-1 Sea Hero through a cluttered field of stretch runners. He hugged Sea Hero's owner and said, "Mr. Mellon, I think you're going to win the Derby!"
Three years ago, in almost the same box, trainer Carl Nafzger gave Frances Genter, with her failing eyesight, a running commentary on Unbridled's run, finally squeezing her during the final strides and saying, "Mrs. Genter, you've won the Kentucky Derby!"
Unbridled might have just been the best horse. Perhaps Sea Hero was, too, and not many people noticed. But Wayne Lukas' vote is that Somebody Up There was working with some invisible strings that control the Kentucky Derby.
A field of 10-12 horses is likely to run in the Preakness, the second race of the Triple Crown series, at Pimlico a week from Saturday.
Sea Hero, Prairie Bayou, Wild Gale and Personal Hope, the first four finishers in the Derby, are probables, plus Wallenda, 13th in the Derby; Union City, 15th; Rockamundo, 17th, and El Bakan, 18th.
They may be joined by the new shooters, Cherokee Run, winner of the Derby Trial; Woods Of Windsor, winner of the Tesio Stakes at Pimlico; Koluctoo Jimmy Al, winner of the Cahill Road Stakes at Aqueduct; and Grand Jewel, winner of the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland.
Representing different owners, Frank Alexander trains both Wallenda and Cherokee Run. Ben Perkins Jr., who saddled Storm Tower, the Derby pace maker who wound up 16th, also trains Woods Of Windsor. Rockamundo, winner of the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park at 108-1, has bounced back from minor surgery for a breathing impairment that also bothered Alysheba before he won the Kentucky Derby in 1987.
The $600,000 Pimlico Special has been moved from the Saturday before the Preakness to Preakness day. That works fine for the ABC telecast, but the Special, an important race for older horses, will be swallowed up by the Preakness in most of the print media.
The Special is race No. 4 in the nine-race American Championship Racing Series and expects to draw former Kentucky Derby winner Strike The Gold, Jovial, Devil His Due and Pistols And Roses.
Another former Derby winner, Lil E. Tee, was to have run, too, and was even assigned high weight of 122 pounds, but came down with a lung infection in training at Churchill Downs and will not run at Pimlico. Devil His Due will carry 120 pounds, Jovial 119 and Strike The Gold 118. Pistols And Roses will run with 114.
Marked Tree, who skipped the Kentucky Derby after running third in the Wood Memorial, is the 8-5 favorite in Saturday's $500,000 Illinois Derby at Sportsman's Park.
There is a 13-horse field for the 1 1/8-mile race, with Devoted Brass and Foxtrail at 4-1.
Horse Racing Notes
The first of seven consecutive Friday night cards at Hollywood Park will be run tonight. The feature is the Tsunami Slew Handicap, which marks the return of Devil Diamond, who has been working smartly for the 5 1/2-furlong grass race, the colt's first start on grass. Devil Diamond is the high weight at 120 pounds. Also in the field is Pricelessly, a full brother of Flawlessly, last year's female-grass champion. Pricelessly's Kentucky Derby hopes were dashed when he bruised a foot at Santa Anita in January.