HORSE RACING : Is Dehere a Super Horse or a Tortoise in Disguise?

WASHINGTON POST

American horse racing needs a star attraction, and people in the sport desperately want to see a brilliant, exciting racehorse burst onto the scene. So when the 2-year-old Dehere scored a series of impressive stakes victories at Saratoga this summer, just about everybody who saw him was eager to proclaim the colt a budding superstar.

After winning his debut at Monmouth Park, Dehere ran in the Saratoga Special and was hopelessly blocked until he was a sixteenth of a mile from the wire. When he extricated himself, he accelerated powerfully to score an improbable victory. "In the press box," the track's marketing director Alan Gutterman recalled, "everybody just stopped what they were doing and watched the replay over and over. It was amazing."

Dehere virtually duplicated that eye-catching performance in the Sanford Stakes. He was trapped behind a wall of horses, but finally found room to run and exploded to win by five lengths. Next, he captured Saratoga's historic Hopeful Stakes with consummate ease. He will be overwhelmingly favored to stay undefeated when he runs in the Futurity Stakes at Belmont Park.

In addition to his own talent, Dehere has celebrity connections that enhance his appeal. He is owned by Robert Brennan, the controversial New Jersey financier who is an ardent booster of Seton Hall's athletic program; he named the colt after basketball star Terry Dehere, the school's all-time scoring leader. So the paddock and the winner's circle are often populated with recognizable figures from basketball too. Brennan generated even more interest in Dehere when he pledged to donate all of the colt's earnings to the cause of handgun control.

New Yorkers have rushed to hail their new celebrity. The New York Daily News' Bill Finley wrote: "With each passing race, with each stunning performance, Dehere moves closer to being that one special horse we have all been waiting for for so long."

Newsday's John Pricci was even more enthusiastic: "If the fates allow, Saratoga '93 will be recalled as the opening chapter in the career of a remarkable racehorse . . . who could take the sport of thoroughbred racing off the back pages and thrust it right there on page one. Dehere and Robert Brennan are capable of making history . . . Theirs can be the greatest story of the turf ever told."

The people closest to Dehere are convinced too. Jockey Chris McCarron said riding the colt is "like stepping on the accelerator of a Ferrari." Trainer Reynaldo Nobles declared, "He's great-a real, real super horse."

Is Dehere really thoroughbred racing's new superstar? Is all of this hype justified or is it based on wishful thinking? I would like to believe in Dehere as much as anyone, but as a speed handicapper I am highly skeptical of him.

Horses can demonstrate talent in many ways besides running fast final times--as Dehere did in overcoming trouble and accelerating explosively to win two stakes at Saratoga. But horses can also look deceptively impressive to the eye when they are running against mediocre competition. Arazi looked like the greatest 2-year-old who ever lived when he made his dazzling move in the 1991 Breeders' Cup, but the unexceptional final time of that race proved to be an accurate gauge of his abilities.

My system of speed figures provides an objective measurement of horses' performances and permits the comparison of horses from different generations, and the numbers suggest that Dehere is not nearly so good as most people think. His three stakes victories at Saratoga earned moderate figures of 89, 90 and 97, and those are not exceptional numbers even by 1993 standards. One of Dehere's rivals in the Futurity, Holy Bull, has run faster, and so has the California-based filly Sardula.

By historical standards, Dehere's performances are undistinguished. The last genuinely brilliant 2-year-old to campaign in the United States, Easy Goer, reeled off figures of 102, 110, 113 and 116 in the summer and early fall of 1988-as many as eight lengths faster than Dehere's top performance. (And Easy Goer was visually impressive too.) The freakish Devil's Bag earned a number of 120 as a 2-year-old.

If he'd been a contemporary of Devil's Bag or Easy Goer, or if he had been born in the 1970s, the so-called "decade of champions," Dehere would have been viewed, dispassionately, as a promising colt with a lot to prove. But as the quality of American racing has declined so noticeably in the past few years--a result, perhaps, of the exodus of so many well-bred horses to Europe--we may be forgetting what a genuinely great racehorse looks like. In an era when an erratic colt like Sea Hero can be the country's reigning 3-year-old, and a moderate performer like Devil His Due can be the leading candidate for horse of the year, Dehere looks pretty exciting.

Racing fans hope he improves.

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