LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Just a week ago, it appeared that picking the winner of the Kentucky Derby was going to be an easy task -- even for a handicapper who hasn't picked one in a decade. The California colt Dinard was a standout, with the right running style, the right pedigree and the right speed figures.
When Dinard was sidelined by an injury, I was doubly depressed. I felt responsible: By making him my early selection, I had put the kiss of death on yet another poor horse at Churchill Downs. And the 117th Derby was now rendered so inscrutable that it is hard to muster a strong conviction about the probable outcome. At least a half-dozen members of the lineup could win.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday May 4, 1991 Home Edition Sports Part C Page 8 Column 3 Sports Desk 1 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
Horse racing--Strike The Gold won the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland in Lexington, Ky., last month. Friday's editions erroneously reported another horse as the winner.
Yet the Derby is nevertheless an intriguing betting proposition, because the shakiest of these contenders may be the colts who are listed as the probable favorite and second choice in the morning line. The records of Fly So Free and Hansel don't stand up to scrutiny.
Fly So Free was the champion of his generation last season, and he started his 3-year-old campaign with three wins in Florida. But in each of them he enjoyed the best of racing luck against weak competition, and he never ran fast. He didn't seem to have improved since his 2-year-old season. And this perception was confirmed when Strike the Gold blew past him in his final prep race, the Blue Grass Stakes. Throw out Fly So Free.
Hansel, another top 2-year-old last season, lost twice to Fly So Free in Florida, then came to Kentucky and won two races here impressively -- including a track-record romp in the $500,000 Jim Beam Stakes. The popular perception is that he has improved drastically and that he is the "now horse" for the Derby, but his supposed improvement may have been due to the low quality of the competition he was facing. Even his track record at Turfway Park was an illusion: the racing strip that day was freakishly fast. With slight trepidation, I will throw out Hansel, too.
Even if these two prominent colts can be eliminated, this Derby is still a contentious race. Sea Cadet, the speedster from California, appears to be the only true front-runner in the field, and such horses are always dangerous. Quintana might be 50 to 1, but when he won the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park, he earned a speed figure just about as good as any of the favorites in the race. Trainer Wayne Lukas' colt Corporate Report has suffered from some physical problems this week, but if he is at his best he might be a contender.
Nevertheless, the 117th Derby may come down to two horses from opposite ends of the country who both appear to be reaching peak form at the right time: Best Pal and Strike the Gold.
One of the leading 2 year olds of last season, Best Pal raced twice in California this winter, and both times he was caught in the stretch by Dinard and lost by a half-length. If Dinard had figured to be the standout in this Derby field, wouldn't those performances suggest that Best Pal should be almost as big a standout? Not necessarily.
Dinard was motoring past Best Pal in the final yards of those stakes at Santa Anita, and Best Pal has a pedigree that suggests the 1 1/4 miles could be too far for him. But the questions about his stamina may be offset by his sheer ability and razor-sharp condition.
Strike the Gold is a late-blooming colt who has picked the optimal moment to bloom. As a 2 year old he could win only a maiden race. In March he rallied from far behind and lost to Fly So Free by a length. A month later, in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, he blew past Fly So Free with authority and scored a three-length victory. He has made dramatic progress from one race to another this spring, and -- unlike Best Pal -- he clearly has the pedigree and the running style to be effective at 1 1/4 miles.
His credentials are reminiscent of Pleasant Colony, the 1981 winner here, who was virtually unknown two months before the Derby, blossomed in the month before the Derby and then dominated a weak field because of his stamina and stretch-running ability. I remember the circumstances vividly, because that was the last time I picked a Derby winner.