LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Demons Begone, the Kentucky Derby favorite, narrowly escaped serious injury Friday morning while being galloped at Churchill Downs.
Exercise rider Gary Smith had the bay 3-year-old out for a one-mile gallop on the main track and came within a couple of feet of colliding with a horse running in the opposite direction.
"(Demons Begone) was coming to the quarter-pole really strong," Smith said. "I had my hands full. I could see someone at the finish line was having a lot of trouble with his horse. Suddenly, the horse ducked to the inside rail and started galloping toward me. He wasn't going very fast, but the point was, he was going the wrong way.
"All I could do was give (Demons Begone) his head and let him go around the other horse on his own. It was pretty close."
The antics of the wrong-way horse, who was not identified, almost gave Phil Hauswald, Demons Begone's 29-year-old trainer, fits.
"He didn't miss him by three feet," Hauswald said. "It was too damn close for comfort."
Friday's Kentucky Oaks crowd at Churchill Downs wagered $528,527 on today's Derby, with Demons Begone netting the largest share, $126,927.
Second favorite among the early bettors was trainer LeRoy Jolley's Gulch, who will be ridden by Bill Shoemaker because, Jolley said earlier this week, Shoemaker has the "soft hands" on the reins to which Gulch responds best.
The third choice among the fans was Cryptoclearance, who, if he wins, will give jockey Jose Santos an Oaks-Derby double, the rider having won the Kentucky Oaks Friday aboard Buryyourbelief.
Joe Manzi, the trainer who will send Masterful Advocate to the post today, schooled the colt in the paddock Friday, trying to get him accustomed to both the surroundings and the crowd.
Masterful Advocate, a disappointing second to Temperate Sil in the Santa Anita Derby, appeared untroubled by the experience.
Thursday, Masterful Advocate turned in the fastest workout of the week among any of the Derby horses when he worked half a mile in 46 seconds.
Today, he will find the LeRoy Jolley entry of Gulch and Leo Castelli on either side of him as he comes out of the gate. Manzi was not worried by that.
"That don't bother me," Manzi said. "Laffit (Pincay, Masterful Advocate's jockey) is big enough to take care of himself."
Jockey Craig Perret, who will be aboard Bet Twice in the Derby, had the best response to the continually asked question of whether the colt could go a mile and a quarter.
"Hey, we're all in the same boat," Perret said. "Who's proven they can go a mile and a quarter? If nobody does, it'll be a great race. We'll all stagger a mile and a quarter together."
Trainer Wayne Lukas wants no part of choosing among the colts in his three-horse Derby entry and will not predict the order of finish for Capote, War and On the Line.
"It serves no purpose," Lukas said. "The horses will sort themselves out on the race track. And I'm more diplomatic than that."
"I don't think there's a standout in the race," is trainer Jack Van Berg's opinion of today's 17-horse Derby field. "I think you could pick four or five or six horses that could be 4-1 or less."
Van Berg's colt, Alysheba, has been made a 6-1 choice on the early line, but Van Berg believes that could change, too.
"After I get done with all these TV shows, I ought to be favored," he said, laughing. Van Berg has spent all week talking up Alysheba's chances.
"I'm probably more confident with him than I've ever been in my life with any horse," he said. "I think he's got an abundance of talent and he's just coming to the top of his game."
Some of the comments made by the jockeys after Friday's races could provide a clue to the outcome of today's Derby.
Said Gary Stevens, who rode Chic Shirine to fifth place in the Kentucky Oaks: "She had a good trip except she was down on the inside and that's not the place to be. She was bobbling all the way. (The track's surface) feels a little deep down there."
And from Oaks winner Jose Santos: "I noticed on her form that she always is running late and I didn't want to rush her with this long stretch. Speed has not been holding real well."