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Fresh Approach to Sort Through Derby Field

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

If they brought back Cole Porter to write a song for the 128th Kentucky Derby, he might try something like, “Too Inscrutable for Words.” While that title doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, Porter would have found a way to make it work.

This Derby, to be run Saturday at Churchill Downs, is confusing all around, so puzzling that Mike Battaglia, the track’s longtime linemaker, is also bewildered. The number might come down slightly by Wednesday, when post positions are drawn, but right now Battaglia considers Harlan’s Holiday a 5-1 favorite. It’s unheard of, in any race, for a line to start at 5-1, but Battaglia has surveyed this mishmash of 20 horses and taken the easy way out: He’s making everyone a longshot.

The time-tested methods of dosage, dotage and dual qualifiers are of no help. Dosage, a highly subjective analysis of stamina based on pedigree, was suspect from the start, and lately it has hit upon hard times. Too many horses with putative distance limitations have been winning the 11/4-mile Derby. Dual qualifying, a system that piggybacks on dosage (no further explanation here--go to your local library), has been a bust. In the last 14 years, nine of the Derby winners weren’t dual qualifiers.

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Dotage was an antidote to dosage, a healthy diversion conjured up by John Nelson, the clever Associated Press writer. Nelson had a nice run with his pastiche--adding the age of the horse’s owner to the age of the trainer and betting the highest total--but after Paul Mellon, 85, and Mack Miller, 71, won the Derby with Sea Hero in 1993, dotage as an institution had no place to go but down.

What the 128th Derby needs is a fresh system, one with equal parts fact and whimsy, and with apologies to Andy Beyer and his number crunchers, The Times today gives you Foal Dates, courtesy of the Jockey Club, the national repository for equine birthdays.

For years, readers have been clamoring for Foal Dates, and their time has come. What a boon this study would have been in 1984. Trainer Woody Stephens’ top 3-year-old, Devil’s Bag, was injured and retired, yet Stephens still won the Derby with his second-stringer, Swale, who beat those false favorites, the Wayne Lukas-trained filly entry of Life’s Magic and Althea. Foal Dates is proud to reveal that Swale was foaled on April 21, 1981. In 1974, Stephens trained Cannonade, another second-stringer that won the Derby, and he, too, was born on April 21.

In fact, the Derby has had a goodly share of foaling doubles. Kauai King, the 1966 winner, was born April 11, the same foaling date as Citation, who swept the Triple Crown in 1948. Chateaugay and Canonero II, the respective winners in 1963 and 1971, share the same foaling date--April 24. Ditto Seattle Slew and Genuine Risk, who won the Derby only three years apart and were both born on a Feb. 15. Pleasant Colony, who won the Derby in 1981, the year after Genuine Risk, ran his race on May 2, only two days before his third birthday. Spend A Buck, foaled on the same date as Pleasant Colony, won the 1985 Derby on May 4--his birthday.

All horses, of course, officially gain a year every Jan. 1. But in real time, Northern Dancer didn’t turn three until May 27--25 days after his 1964 Derby victory. The Canadian-bred colt still wasn’t three when he won the Preakness, the second leg of the Triple Crown, two weeks after the Derby. In the last 40 years, there has been no older winner of the Derby than Northern Dancer. Foaling dates of Derby winners before 1960 are hard to come by.

More to the point of this year’s Derby, in the last 34 years, 25 of the winners were foaled in February and March. The only January foal to win since 1968 was Grindstone in 1996. Thunder Gulch, the 1995 Derby winner, was foaled on May 23 and is the only May foal to have won the race in the last 17 runnings.

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Based on this, you can throw out Perfect Drift, the Spiral Stakes winner, in this year’s Derby. Foaled on April 29, 1999, he is the youngest horse in the Derby. April 29 is not May, but it’s close enough. That’s what the dosage guys would say.

You can also eliminate Blue Burner. What’s that old lyric (Frank Loesser-Arthur Schwartz), “They’re either too young or too old...” Blue Burner was foaled on Jan. 21, making him the oldest horse in the race. He will not be another Grindstone.

Other throwouts, because they were April foals, are favored Harlan’s Holiday, Buddha, Medaglia d’Oro, Easy Grades, Ocean Sound and Sunday Break, should he wind up running.

That still leaves 14 horses. Johannesburg, Castle Gandolfo, War Emblem, Saarland, Request For Parole, Wild Horses and U S S Tinosa (an iffy starter) were foaled in February. The March foals are Essence Of Dubai, Came Home, Private Emblem, Proud Citizen, Lusty Latin, Windward Passage and It’sallinthechase.

It appears that U S S Tinosa and Sunday Break, short on earnings in graded stakes, are not going to run. In an executive decision, Foal Dates is dismissing It’sallinthechase, ninth-place finisher in the Arkansas Derby and winless this year. Even if this colt had been foaled on the same date as Citation and Kauai King, it would not help.

It turns out that seven of the final 14 had foal dates that were the same as Derby winners: Essence Of Dubai-Real Quiet; Johannesburg-Gato Del Sol, Came Home-Lil E. Tee; Request For Parole-Silver Charm; Wild Horses-Affirmed; and Windward Passage and Proud Citizen, both born on the same date as Alysheba.

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To narrow this group, Foal Dates has taken the easy way out by resorting to the definitive Man o’ War tiebreaker. Man o’ War may not have won the Derby--didn’t even run in the race--but he makes a good tiebreaker. He was foaled in Kentucky on March 29, 1917. Lil E. Tee was also a March 29 foal, as was Came Home.

That’s good enough for Foal Dates. Came Home’s winning the Santa Anita Derby is only an afterthought.

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Tempera, winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, has a fever, missed training Saturday and her status is questionable for Friday’s Kentucky Oaks.... Sky Terrace might be headed for the Preakness on May 18 after his two-length victory Saturday in the $100,000 Derby Trial at Churchill Downs. Cashel Castle, who finished second, lost for the first time in six starts. With the track sloppy, there were three scratches--the favored entry of Mayakovsky and Shah Jehan, and Stephentown.... John Mabee, leading owner and breeder and longtime leader of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club who died Wednesday, will be buried privately Tuesday. A visitation is scheduled for 4-6 p.m. Monday at the El Camino Memorial Park in San Diego, and there will be a memorial service Wednesday at the Del Mar track at 12:15 p.m.

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