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THOROUGHBRED RACING / BILL CHRISTINE : A Long, Difficult Derby Journey Might Face This Front-Runner

At last one horseman might send his horse against Holy Bull for the lead in the Kentucky Derby.

“There’s a 90% chance,” owner Robert Perez said when asked about the tactics jockey Jorge Chavez will use with Ulises next Saturday at Churchill Downs.

Perez, a retired construction executive who was born in Argentina and has lived in New York for 35 years, has run two other horses in the Derby, both of them front-runners.

In 1982, Cupecoy’s Joy, running two years after another filly, Genuine Risk, had won the Derby, loped along on an easy lead. She was ahead by four lengths after six furlongs and was still on top at the quarter pole. That’s when Gato Del Sol was circling the field. He made up 18 1/2 lengths and won by 2 1/2, Cupecoy’s Joy fading to 10th place.

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Cupecoy’s Joy had sprinted in all but one of her 14 pre-Derby starts and rightfully was part of the parimutuel field at Churchill. That’s the track handicapper’s way of designating horses with the least chance of winning. A field horse hasn’t won the Derby since Canonero II in 1971.

Last year, Perez had El Bakan, another field horse, in the Derby. El Bakan was undefeated in seven starts in Panama, but only one of the races was beyond seven furlongs. In his only race in the United States, two weeks before the Derby, he came within half a length of winning the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland before being caught by Grand Jewel.

El Bakan drew No. 19 for the Derby. His starting position was closer to the paddock than the inside rail, and he didn’t fire leaving the gate. He finished next to last.

“He had no shot with the post position,” Perez said. “We lost the race at the draw. Then during the race he swallowed his tongue and choked on it. He also bled a little. The vet said he probably popped a blood vessel when he swallowed his tongue.”

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Equipped with a tongue tie, El Bakan stalked Personal Hope in the Preakness two weeks later and hung on for third, behind Prairie Bayou and Cherokee Run. At 51-1, he paid $14.60 to show, the best price from that pool in 12 years. Three weeks after that, El Bakan was set to run in the Belmont Stakes, but a fever prompted trainer Alfredo Callejas to scratch him.

Now Perez will pay $26,000--$20,000 in entry and starting fees, and $6,000 because his was a late nomination--to run Ulises in the Derby.

After winning four consecutive sprints by 24 1/2 lengths in Panama, Ulises made his U.S. debut the same way El Bakan did, in the Lexington at Keeneland a week ago. He battled Able Buck for the lead for three-quarters of a mile, then after they had worn each other out, Southern Rhythm rallied from next to last to win. Ulises wound up third, beaten by 7 1/2 lengths.

It wasn’t a bad race, actually, for a horse who had gone from five furlongs to 1 1/16 miles, had two months between races and endured a grueling trip from Panama that required a week’s stay in quarantine in Miami. Ulises didn’t arrive at Callejas’ Belmont Park barn until two weeks before the Keeneland race, then was shipped to Kentucky.

Perez bought Ulises for a price he wants to keep private. Ulises is a Kentucky-bred son of Temperence Hill and Jol’ski Too, a Bold Bidder mare, who was first sold at a yearling auction for $14,000.

“His pedigree gives him a right to win at a distance,” said Perez, who has a large group of broodmares at his 80-acre farm in Otisville, N.Y. “Temperence Hill won the Belmont and the Travers (in 1980). The Lexington was a good prep race for him. He got tired, but that was to be expected, because it was his first race around two turns, and he had to fight Able Buck all the way.”

Perez does most of the talking for the stable, because Callejas, the son of a famous Argentine trainer, speaks little English. Callejas has been training in the United States since the late 1970s. He nearly swept the New York filly triple with Cupecoy’s Joy, finishing second to Christmas Past in the Coaching Club American Oaks, the finale in the series.

Considering El Bakan’s fate in the draw a year ago, Perez is concerned about this year’s draw. Post positions will be drawn Thursday.

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“Post positions will be a big factor,” Perez said. “I don’t want to wish anybody any bad luck, but it would be nice if Holy Bull drew the outside post. That might hurt his speed the way it did my horse last year.”

The field for the 120th Derby seems to be settling in at 15. That means one horse will have to start from the auxiliary gate, which puts a horse even farther to the outside than his post position would indicate.

“Once the number gets over 14, it doesn’t make much difference, because the extra gate’s got to be used,” said Tom Wagoner, the Churchill Downs starter. “I would like to always have a field with just one gate, but that doesn’t happen much anymore.”

The first year Wagoner worked as the Churchill starter, in 1974, it was the 100th anniversary of the Derby, and owners believed it was an honor running a horse in the centennial. There were a record 23 starters, which prompted Churchill Downs to limit fields to 20, with preference given to horses with the highest earnings.


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