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Winner Doesn't Impress

April 04, 1993|JIM MURRAY

Anybody out there got a horse? Got all his teeth and eyes and ears and legs? Can run a little bit?

Tell you what you do. Unhook him from that wagon or plow, rub him down, check the Yellow Pages for a trainer.

And see about getting him to Louisville, Ky., in May. Put him in the Kentucky Derby. See if they will bend the rules and let you supplement.

The way this thing is shaping up, a live burro might win it.

You see, along about this time of the year, that race in Kentucky the first Saturday in May has a clear-cut favorite or two. It has a whole bunch of horses hanging around the edges.

This year, they are acting like a bunch of claimers. They go around beating each other. You know how claiming horses are. If you run eight races, you will get eight different winners.

You take the horse who won the Santa Anita Derby on Saturday. Personal Hope probably occupies the shaky favorite's role in the big race in May now.

But he basically beat a girl horse. She traded punches with him for nearly half a mile before grudgingly falling back at the wire.

Now, I don't mean to be sexist, but it's well known that female horses are not supposed to be able to keep up with males during the spring of the year. They have their minds on other things.

What's more, two weeks ago, on this same track, Personal Hope finished 2 3/4 lengths behind a horse called Corby.

If you would offer any advice on the Kentucky Derby, it would be this: Don't bet anything that gets beat. Especially not recently. The Derby is a tough race to win even for a horse who has never been beaten. Ask Native Dancer. It was the only race he ever lost.

Another first law of the race track is, winners win. Losers make excuses.

Around the country, Derby wannabes have been having a tough spring. They can't seem to run two good races in a row. This would be a good year for that mythical situation where an old Indian arrives in Louisville leading a pinto by a rope, puts him in the Kenucky Derby and wins by 20 lengths.

Personal Hope won a race that has produced 10 Kentucky Derby winners and 18 horses who have won Triple Crown races.

Is he following in their hoof prints?

You have to throw out the race against Corby. Throwing out races is never very reassuring in judging a Kentucky Derby prospect.

Usually, when you find the trainer of a Derby prospect around the barn, you find a grizzled old party with faded blue eyes and a backstretch squint to them. He lost his hair about the time of Citation's Derby, and he might have saddled a horse in the first Santa Anita Derby ever run--in 1935.

Mark Hennig, Personal Hope's trainer, looks more like a guy on his way to a drag race--or a high school prom. He is a baby-faced 27 who, until recently, was rubbing horses for Wayne Lukas. He not only has hair, it's jet black and cut in a Camelot bob.

If there are any secrets to getting a horse ready for the biggest race of his life, you wouldn't think Hennig had been around long enough to know them. His owners hardly qualify as senior citizens, either. Lee Lewis and his wife, Debi, probably could call themselves Disco Stable. Dowagers are supposed to be race horse owners, but Debi Lewis looks as if she came off a fashion runway. And Lee, a construction magnate from Lubbock who builds hospitals, amusement parks and Air Force bases from Texas to Florida, is only 41. His hair is black, too, and his cheeks are rosy. The Kentucky Derby has been won by a 75-year-old trainer and a 92-year-old owner. Theymight put the Inquiry sign up if the Lewises and Hennig win May 1. The stewards might rule that they are too young.

Around a race track, the plaint is frequently heard of a winner: "He didn't beat nuthin'!"

Did Personal Hope? Was there a quality gap in Saturday's Santa Anita Derby?

Well, Corby left town. And Little Eliza couldn't cross this ice, although she hung on gamely to make the boys go all out to beat her.

"I don't think we have to take a back seat to Corby," Hennig says. He made a mistake in his loss to Corby, Hennig acknowledges. After winning the Bradbury Stakes, a 1 1/8-mile test, he worked his horse too lightly. "We didn't think, after the Bradbury, we had to do too much with him, we didn't need more than two light breezes."

It might be on the mark, but it's still an excuse. Man O' War never needed one. Maybe Personal Hope won't at Kentucky next month.

"Corby scares me," said jockey Gary Stevens, who rode Personal Hope. "I had an option to ride him. He has somewhat the same temperament as Personal Hope. But I think people talk every year about what a weak crop of 3-year-olds we have. I think the picture will unfold in the next two or three weeks. . . . There are some really fine horses. I had respect for Eliza before today, and I came away with respect for her. She is a superb race horse. And it took patience to beat her."

The Santa Anita and Florida derbies and other prelim races are supposed to produce what they refer to as The Big Horse in Louisville in May--the one to beat.

There is no such animal this year. Personal Hope beat what Corby left behind. Not exactly riffraff, but there weren't any Affirmeds or Sunday Silences or Swapses in there.

Maybe there won't be any at Louisville, either. This may be the year to load a longshot in a boxcar, ship him to Churchill Downs and bet a bundle.

So Personal Hope lost the San Felipe. Maybe Corby is a super horse--remember, Secretariat not only lost the Wood Memorial three weeks before the Derby, but he finished third. Then he won the Triple Crown. And he won the Belmont by 31 lengths, two months after getting show money in the Wood.

That is the thing that makes racing great. Horses can't talk. Unlike Muhammad Ali, they can't tell you how great they are.

As for Personal Hope, look at it this way: he already has done the hard part. He won the Santa Anita Derby. They will have him to catch at Louisville.

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