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Better than outside shot for Big Brown

Times Staff Writer

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- There are a lot of intriguing questions going into today’s 134th running of the Kentucky Derby.

Can 3-1 morning-line favorite Big Brown, undefeated in three races, do what he did in the Florida Derby and win impressively from the outside post? In Florida it was the 12th hole, here it is the 20th. Jockey Kent Desormeaux sees that as a plus today because, he says, it should keep his mount away from early trouble.

Can Colonel John, the second choice at 4-1, pull rank on the field and give jockey Corey Nakatani his first Derby victory in his 14th try? The WinStar colt’s previous six races -- four wins and two seconds -- all came on synthetic surfaces. But he showed he can run on dirt as well with a blistering five-furlong workout in 57.61 seconds on the Churchill Downs track last Sunday. Nine of the 20 horses in the Derby field made their last start on a synthetic surface, and it remains to be seen whether that will be a factor.

Can Gayego, who like Colonel John is a Kentucky-bred horse now based in Southern California, provide jockey Mike Smith with his second Derby victory? Smith won aboard Giacomo in 2005. Gayego, the Arkansas Derby winner, will start from post position No. 19 and figures to be up front with Big Brown early.

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Can Pyro, the 6-1 third choice, show that his 10th-place finish in the Blue Grass Stakes on April 12 was an aberration?

Can Eight Belles become only the fourth filly to win a Kentucky Derby?

Will the track be fast at post time, which is 3:04 p.m. PDT? There’s a 30% chance of rain at post time today after heavy rains Friday stopped just before nightfall. But the Churchill Downs dirt track is known to dry quickly.

And then there is this one:

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Can Bob Black Jack, given a legitimate shot by a number of horse racing experts, prove to be the feel-good story of this Kentucky Derby?

Bob Black Jack was purchased by Robert Harabedian, 62, of Los Alamitos for $4,500 at a sale at Fairplex Park in Pomona in October 2006.

Harabedian said he came up with the name because since his days as a pool hustler at San Gabriel High he has used Bob Black as an alias.

The Jack was added to the name because Bob Black Jack’s father is Stormy Jack, who won eight of his 21 races and earned $596,693. Also, Harabedian is a fan of the card game blackjack.

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Three days after last year’s Kentucky Derby, James Kasparoff, a young and struggling trainer, acting on a tip from one of his mentors, Frank Veiga, went with his brother Tim and friend Jeff Harmon to a horse ranch in Riverside County to check out an unraced 2-year-old Harabedian was selling.

Tim Kasparoff and Harmon offered $25,000. Harabedian, who had invested only another $4,500 or so in the colt, figured he’d make a nice profit, so Bob Black Jack was sold.

“Sure, in hindsight, I regret making the sale,” Harabedian said. “But that’s the way this business goes. Sometimes you hang on to a colt and it never races. In this case, I sold a Kentucky Derby contender.

“But I’ll be rooting every bit as hard as those guys will be,” he said, referring to the Kasparoff brothers and Harmon.

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James Kasparoff, 34, who credits Veiga and Don Pierce, among others, with teaching him the business, in 2000 gave up a job as a satellite coordinator for the horse racing network TVG to go out on his own as a trainer.

He and his brother used to go to the track with their father when they were growing up in Hacienda Heights. After James got his training license, they teamed up and began claiming horses.

But it was anything but smooth sailing. James, who is single and now lives in Monrovia, at times was so broke he slept in a tack room at Santa Anita. Tim, who lives in Whittier with his wife and three children, is a professional poker player.

The Kasparoffs met Harmon through a mutual friend. Harmon, 60, came to Southern California 30 years ago from Brooklyn as a computer specialist for AT&T.; Harmon is now semi-retired and he and his wife live in Laguna Niguel. They have a second home in Austin, Texas.

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In the Santa Anita Derby, it appeared Bob Black Jack was going to win. Colonel John caught him three strides before the finish line and won by half a length.

Immediately after the race, the Kasparoff brothers and Harmon were heartbroken and said they weren’t going to take their horse to the Kentucky Derby, even if he ended up with enough graded stakes earnings to qualify.

“This was our Kentucky Derby,” Tim Kasparoff said at the time.

Asked what was next for the horse, Harmon quipped, “Maybe a Saturday night race at Los Alamitos.”

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But by the next morning, they were thinking a trip to Louisville might be a good thing. The horse remained on the cusp, but through some injuries to other contenders and a few defections, Bob Black Jack, with his $150,000 for second in the Santa Anita Derby and $30,000 from previous stakes, got in as the 20th and final qualifier.

“We didn’t want to shortchange the horse,” James Kasparoff said. “We wanted to give him the chance to run here. We’d be foolish not to try it.”

Bob Black Jack will start from post 13, and unlike in the card game, 13 may be lucky. The horse, listed at 20-1, could pull off an upset. He certainly has shown the speed to do it.

Another plus is veteran Richard Migliore will be in the saddle. But doubters wonder whether Bob Black Jack can go the 1 1/4 -mile Derby distance.

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“He was bred to go this distance,” James Kasparoff said. “And he’s in great shape and looks super.”

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larry.stewart@latimes.com

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KENTUCKY DERBY

Today at Churchill Downs

3 p.m. PDT, Channel 4

(Coverage begins at 2 p.m.)

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