BALTIMORE — Horse racing is an endlessly complex and fascinating game, because we can never know for certain why the animals perform as they do.
When a horse runs an unusually good or bad race that contradicts all expectations, we may wonder: What was the key? The condition of the track? The physical condition of the horse? The way the race developed? Weight? Pace?
Not only do bettors ask such questions frequently, but so do trainers; they aren't omniscient, either.
Mel Stute is the first to admit this. He is one of the more astute and respected trainers in California, a man who has success with almost every type of thoroughbred, and yet for the last 10 days he has been asking himself: Why? Why did Snow Chief run so badly as the favorite in the Kentucky Derby?
"I've gone over the race in my mind a hundred times," Stute said. And the trainer acknowledged that he didn't have a thoroughly satisfactory explanation for his colt's dismal 11th-place finish.
Stute had come to Churchill Downs brimming with confidence. Rarely has the trainer of a favorite been so relaxed during the days leading up to the Derby.
His serenity seemed well-founded. Snow Chief was not only unbeaten as a 3-year-old, but he had defeated his chief rival, Badger Land, four times out of four. Snow Chief had run twice against Ferdinand and trounced him both times.
So how could Snow Chief run so badly -- chasing a fast early pace, weakening after he had gone a mile and fading to finish 19 lengths behind Ferdinand? Pick a theory:
--"Maybe it was the race track," Stute said, but the hoary he-couldn't-get-hold-of-the-track theory is one of the flimsiest in the game. There was nothing unusual about the Churchill Downs strip, and besides, Snow Chief had handled diverse racing surfaces from coast to coast.
--Stute second-guessed himself mildly for bringing Snow Chief to Churchill Downs only a few days before the Derby. "If I were going to do it differently, I might have gone earlier and worked a mile over the track."
--Stute's plan of attack for the Derby was unconventional, and open to second-guessing, in another way. He had kept Snow Chief in action ever since the fall of his 2-year-old season; the colt had run in at least one major stake every month since October. He might have been worn out by the time of the Derby, although this notion seemed to be contradicted by his robust appearance and brilliant workouts before the race.
--Maybe Snow Chief was killed by the hot early pace of the Derby. He was chasing a leader who was setting insane fractions, running the first half-mile in 45 1/5 seconds. Few horses, even good ones, could withstand such early pressure in a 1 1/4-mile race.
Yet even though the pace surely hurt him, Snow Chief was able to finish only a neck in front of the long shot Zabaleta, one of the other front-runners coping with the same tough conditions.
--And there is a possibility Stute surely wouldn't admit, but Snow Chief may simply not be as talented a racehorse as he was widely thought to be before the Derby. He gained his lofty reputation with decisive victories in the Florida Derby and Santa Anita Derby, but he had everything in his favor in both races and still didn't run impressively fast.
There may be an element of truth in all these theories. In racing, as in life, there are few simple black-and-white answers. But the most plausible is the notion that Snow Chief simply has been to the well once too often.
He may be on the downgrade. His workouts tend to confirm this notion. He had trained in dazzling fashion before the Derby, but when he worked at Pimlico Sunday, going seven furlongs in 1:25 3/5, even Stute didn't appear thrilled.
"He'll usually do better than 25 3/5 for the last quarter," the trainer said. "Of course, I'm not familiar with the track."
On Saturday Snow Chief should provide the answers to most of the questions about his disappointing Derby performance. If he wins the Preakness, or even loses with a strong effort, that should prove he was hurt by the pace in the Derby and, possibily, by his lack of familiarity with the track.