Derby Fever Breaks Out in Billings, but Cooler Head Prevails

May 02, 1985|BILL CHRISTINE | Times Staff Writer

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Course Ican, a cheap, sore-legged filly, and Andy's Copy, an unsound claiming horse, won't be in the Kentucky Derby Saturday, and that's just as well, because both had as much right running at Churchill Downs as Francis the Mule.

But the fact that their owner, a fantasizing real estate man from Billings, Mont., even considered running them in the Derby is indicative of what trainers must tolerate when their owners get severe cases of Derby Madness.

Although Course Ican had been sent to Lakeview Thoroughbred Farm near Los Angeles and bred to a stallion April 20, Roger Nelson, one of her owners, was entertaining the possibility of running the 3-year-filly as late as last Saturday.

Nelson, whose partner, Charlene Keller, owns shopping malls and convenience stores in Billings, called the Daily Racing Form about 10 days ago and announced that Course Ican would run in the Derby if there were fewer than 20 starters, which has been a probability for a couple of weeks. In 110 runnings of the Derby, only two fillies--Regret in 1915 and Genuine Risk in 1980--have won the race. Neither was pregnant at the time.

Jude Feld, Course Ican's Santa Anita-based trainer, didn't know about Nelson's plan to run in the Derby until he read an item in the Form April 20, the same day the filly had a date in the breeding shed with a horse named African Sky.

"I was mystified," Feld said. "Nelson's a little bit goofy, but I was still teed off about what he said he was going to do. Bobby Frankel (another trainer) got on me and Scott McClellan (jockey Chris McCarron's agent) came by the barn and asked if I still needed a rider for the filly in the Derby.

"But after a while I figured, what the hell. I couldn't do anything wrong at the end of the Santa Anita meet, winning something like six out of eight races, so I just joined in the fun."

Besides Course Ican, Nelson and Keller own a 3-year-old colt, Andy's Copy, who was also nominated to the Derby for the $200 fee.

Last Saturday, when contacted at home by The Times, Nelson said that he was still considering running Course Ican in the Derby--despite her possibly being in a family way--and added that Andy's Copy might go if the filly couldn't. Nelson said that his announcement to the Racing Form wasn't a hoax or a publicity stunt and that he was sincere about running a horse in the Derby.

"We're gamblers," Nelson said. "A lot of trainers wouldn't enter a horse in the Derby unless they could win or place. But I don't feel that way. Some people told me I was crazy when I took Course Ican from Montana to California to run her, but she won a stake at Bay Meadows and was close to Fran's Valentine, who's one of the best fillies in the country.

"Look at the Wood Memorial this year. It was won by a longshot (Eternal Prince, who was 5 to 1) and now he's in the Derby."

Word of Andy's Copy's possible trip to Louisville caught Allen Severinsen, the trainer of the colt, with his jaw down. Andy's Copy, who has been running for a $12,500 claiming price and lower, has won only one race in his life, beating maidens at Bay Meadows. What's more, the colt has had a low blood count in recent weeks.

"Jude Feld said that Nelson's a little goofy?" said Severinsen, the son of trumpet player Doc Severinsen. "He's a lot goofy. I can't believe this isn't a joke. That guy's a lot more off the wall than I thought he was."

Late Saturday, after talking to Severinsen, the 50-year-old Nelson called off the Derby caper. Nelson.

Nelson is not the first owner to get a serious case of Derby Madness, though. It's been known to strike normally rational men before. In 1970, Michael Hines, a member of the Nevada Racing Commission, wanted to run a horse named One Eyed Tom in the Derby even though the colt had never started a race in his life.

One Eyed Tom had regained total sight after his vision had been impaired by running into a tree limb when he was a young horse. But the Churchill Downs stewards wouldn't let him run after a tryout in the starting gate a few days before the race. Every time the colt broke, he tried to make a U-turn.

In 1952, Odie Newell, a railroad engineer from Iowa, showed up at Churchill Downs with a horse named Gift Silver. The owner prowled the backside in his engineer's cap and offered Steve Brooks, one of the country's leading jockeys, half the Derby purse--instead of the customary 10%--if Brooks won the race with Gift Silver. Brooks declined, and not too respectfully, either. His comments went unpublished in most newspapers.

Gift Silver was scratched from the Derby after running into a filly on the track several days before the race.

In '79, the Derby met a moon-shooter named J.A. Mohamed, who came here from Texas with Great Redeemer, an unfashionable colt. When Mohamed's trainer refused to accompany the horse, the owner got a license and saddled him himself. Mohamed also bought ads in trade publications, saying that Spectacular Bid, Flying Paster and others wouldn't beat Great Redeemer.

Great Redeemer, despite finishing third in the Derby Trial, went off at 78 to 1 in the Derby. He finished last in a field of 10, more than 47 lengths behind the victorious Spectacular Bid. Lot o' Gold, who finished next to last, hit the wire 25 lengths ahead of Great Redeemer, and photographers streamed across the track, en route to the winner's circle on the other side. Great Redeemer almost ran over several of them as he finally reached the finish.

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