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SANTA ANITA : Looking to Buy a Derby Horse? Big Prices Aren't Always Right


There's a fine line between being a genius and an idiot in this game.

--Trainer Craig Lewis

Seldom have so many Kentucky Derby candidates fallen into the hands of horsemen who bought them after they had already raced for someone else. The list of promising hand-me-downs includes Thunder Gulch, Suave Prospect, Jumron and Da Hoss, and Sidney and Jenny Craig, frequently on the prowl for a good 3-year-old at this time of the year, haven't even gone for their checkbook yet.

Jumron, reportedly sold because the father of his owner thought they were spending too much on their horses, will be an odds-on favorite today in the $150,000 Golden State Derby at Bay Meadows. Earlier in the afternoon, at Aqueduct, the speedy Da Hoss races 10 opponents in the $250,000 Gotham Stakes as he runs farther than six furlongs for the first time.

Thoroughbreds are big but delicate creatures, and as the 121st Derby approaches, on May 6 at Churchill Downs, horsemen are inevitably torn between the chance of a lifetime or selling their prospects in what becomes a sellers' market.

Most of the time, selling is the prudent, if not romantic, thing to do. Purdue King, sold for an estimated $1 million shortly before the 1988 Derby, ran 16th, beating only one horse. And in 1993, the Craigs spent about the same amount for Tossofthecoin, who ran last in the Derby. The year before, Jenny Craig's $2.5-million purchase, Dr Devious, was a disappointment at Churchill Downs, but a month later he won the English Derby.

The year of Dr Devious in Louisville was also the year of Lil E. Tee, who remains a lasting inspiration for those who shop for the prepackaged racehorse. The Pennsylvania-bred was so unwanted as a 2-year-old that his breeder sold him for $2,000, to his blacksmith. The farrier turned a profit by selling Lil E. Tee for $25,000, and then after the horse started running, his price went up to $200,000. That fourth owner, W. Cal Partee, kept Lil E. Tee long enough to win the Derby.

Craig Lewis, the owner and trainer of Larry The Legend, the winner of the San Rafael Stakes at Santa Anita, could sell the $2,500 colt right now for a tidy profit. The offers started coming in after Larry The Legend outran Timber Country, last year's champion 2-year-old male. All of them had the right sweetener for Lewis--he would be allowed to continue training the colt, which would leave him with the purchase price plus a 10% share of any money the horse earned. Larry The Legend has already earned $163,425.

So far, the dangling carrot--the chance to win a Kentucky Derby--means more to Lewis than the cash. He has consigned Larry The Legend to an auction at Churchill Downs three days before the Derby, but is unlikely to sell him.

"I think I'd like to go the distance with this horse, since I've been with him from the beginning," Lewis said this week. "But I'm not saying that that couldn't change if some tremendous offer came along."

Larry The Legend has three wins and a second in four starts, but he's a little horse and wouldn't appear to have the physique to withstand the rigors of a Derby campaign.

"He might only weigh 800 pounds or so, but 700 pounds of that is heart," Lewis said.

Gary Lewis--no relation to Craig--trains Jumron, who is stabled at Santa Anita but has run his only two races at Bay Meadows since Charles Dunn bought him for about $150,000. Before he was sold, Jumron was subjected to an impossible schedule as a 2-year-old. Unraced going into October, he ran every Saturday that month, winning three times and finishing second in the other start.

Jumron must think he's on vacation under Lewis. After a second-place finish in the California Juvenile on Dec. 26, he won the El Camino Real Derby by nine lengths on a sloppy track on Jan. 14. Lewis entered Jumron in Santa Anita's San Felipe last Sunday, but scratched. Afternoon Deelites, the Derby favorite, and Timber Country ran 1-2.

Despite the $150,000 purse, the Golden State Derby, a new race at Bay Meadows, drew only four horses besides Jumron, and they are hardly a distinguished group. Three are from the claiming ranks, and the fourth, Acquitted, was a minor stakes winner at Bay Meadows as a 2-year-old.

When Da Hoss ran for the first time outside Arizona, in the Best Turn Stakes at Aqueduct on March 4, his new trainer, Mike Dickinson, thought he was a colt. The Aqueduct racing office thought he was a colt. But Da Hoss is a gelding, and that distinction has been made in advance of today's one-mile Gotham, which is a prep for the Wood Memorial on April 15.

What everybody knows for sure about Da Hoss is that he's exceptionally fast and hates to lose. His three-length victory in the Best Turn kept him undefeated in four races. In his final appearance as a 2-year-old, he won at Turf Paradise in 1:07 1/5, which is probably the fastest a juvenile has ever run six furlongs.

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