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COMMENTARY : Kentucky Derby Shaping Up as One for the Ages

NEWSDAY

From the outset, the group of male thoroughbreds now age 3 was extraordinary.

Dehere began turning heads in the East last summer, the season in which 2-year-olds begin sorting themselves and the advance toward the next year’s Kentucky Derby begins. Since then, each development has complicated the puzzle; one by one, talented, physically impressive horses were introduced in remarkable numbers.

There is no better place than Saratoga for a 2-year-old to make a reputation and Dehere made the most of that stage. Then, Holy Bull showed up and, in only his third start, upset Dehere in the Futurity at Belmont Park. In the West, Brocco came on in late autumn and won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. He was, in turn, upset by Valiant Nature in the Hollywood Futurity. Back in New York, Go For Gin reeled off three impressive wins, the last over 9 furlongs in the Remsen.

At year’s end, with Dehere having won the divisional championship in a split decision, this group had established itself as the deepest in years. The field that will assemble next week in Louisville for the Kentucky Derby supports the original impression. This division is strong enough to withstand the loss of Dehere, who was injured early in the season, and Irgun, the late-developing but rising star who emerged in the Gotham Stakes and Wood Memorial, but stubbed his toe late and will not race in the Derby.

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Brocco, Holy Bull, Valiant Nature and Blumin Affair -- four of the top six horses on the experimental handicap of last season’s 2-year-olds -- are at Churchill Downs. Had Polar Expedition’s people not opted for the easy money in the Illinois Derby, only Dehere would be missing from the top six. Also at Churchill: Go For Gin and Tabasco Cat, who were weighted within 10 pounds of the highweight on the experimental, a trait common to many winners of the Kentucky Derby. Any of these might win the Derby without being an implausible surprise.

Good horses in big races is what this is about. The hype may surround the animals, but it is orchestrated by people -- and this Kentucky Derby is as rich in colorful humans as in pedigree and performance.

Racing is unique among sports. Its legends almost never retire and they get more dangerous with age.

Like their animals, the humans connected to these horses have been rich in color from the outset. Robert Brennan, who owns Dehere, set the tone last summer, when he first began to field questions concerning possible ill effects of a long and busy juvenile season. Secretariat and Affirmed, Brennan often said, were heavily campaigned at age 2. Most others, meanwhile, were thinking of Dehere in terms of horses not named Secretariat or Affirmed, both of whom won the Triple Crown.

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The group of horsemen that ultimately has jelled in Kentucky is precious.

During the next 10 days, Jimmy Croll, who is 74, will be interviewed by hundreds of people holding microphones and notebooks next week and no one will understand a sentence. Croll and elocution are strangers. But he owns and trains Holy Bull, the favorite he inherited from Rachel Carpenter, a long-time client, when she died last year. Croll is also up for election to the Hall of Fame this year. If elected, his plaque in the shrine in Saratoga Springs might read: Trained Mr. Prospector, Housebuster and Holy Bull throughout their careers without uttering a single intelligible sentence. Gave new meaning to the term, “sound bite,” Kentucky Derby, 1994.

If Croll makes the Hall of Fame, Charlie Whittingham, Jack Van Berg and Ron McAnally will be waiting. At the moment, however, they’re waiting in Louisville, Whittingham with Strodes Creek and Numerous, Van Berg with Blumin Affair, McAnally with Valiant Nature.

The wry Whittingham is 81 and a legend with a proper title: The Bald Eagle. There are many bald trainers, but only one eagle. His biography is in the bookstores and it’s a good read; his name is already on two Kentucky Derby trophies. He remembers Phar Lap. Whittingham will talk to hundreds of people next week and they will learn nothing whatsoever about what is really going on with Strodes Creek and Numerous.

Van Berg, 57, the down-home denim curmudgeon, is a legend in the making and the son of a legend, Marion Van Berg. His roots are in the midwest and he has one Kentucky Derby trophy bearing his name.

Whittingham has a taste for the dry martini and is comfortable around the movie crowd. Van Berg is a no-nonsense workaholic in jeans and boots with horses scattered all over the country and more frequent-flyer mileage than he’ll ever use. The affable, mild-mannered McAnally has no hardware from the Derby, but he trained John Henry, Bayakoa, Paseana and Tight Spot. McAnally, unlike almost all horse trainers, actually will say what’s really on his mind.

The imagination bends in the attempt to envision four characters more dissimilar than Croll, Whittingham, Van Berg and McAnally. And the supporting cast is almost as good: Dick Mandella, the hottest hand in California; Randy Winick, son of Arnold Winick, who dominated Chicago racing for decades but is best known for his deal making; colorful, Brooklyn-born Nick Zito, trainer of 1991 Derby winner Strike the Gold and no stranger to controversy; D. Wayne Lukas, once dominant, now struggling, without a Grade I victory in more than 2 1/2 years and in Kentucky with Tabasco Cat, the horse who broke free from its handler in December at Santa Anita and ran over his son and assistant, Jeff, who still is recovering from nearly fatal head injuries.

The assemblage of owners is unusually diverse. Brocco is owned by 84-year-old Albert Broccoli, who is actually called “Cubby.” He is the producer of, among other things, the James Bond movies and a direct descendant of the botanist who invented broccoli by crossing Italian rabe with cauliflower. Soul of the Matter is owned by songwriter Burt Bacharach. Powis Castle’s owner is Berry Gordy, founder of Motown Records. Verne Winchell, owner of Valiant Nature, made his money in doughnuts. Art Vogel, 72, of Hamburg, Iowa, made his in the popcorn business. His partner in Blumin Affair, 37-year-old Leroy Bowman, is a farmer.

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If this fails to materialize as a Derby for the ages -- and most do -- the week leading up to that two minutes May 7 surely will be one for a time capsule.


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