LEXINGTON, Ky. — A horse that most bettors ignored and a jockey unable to get the time of day from many trainers combined to win the $500,000 Blue Grass Stakes Saturday, turning the 121st Kentucky Derby into the Rubik's Cube of racing.
The Derby will be run at Churchill Downs on May 6, and instead of clarifying the race, the 71st Blue Grass threw a new horse into the mix and sullied the reputations of a few others.
The latest colt on the block is Wild Syn, who went to the lead in waltz time and never was headed under a confident ride from Randy Romero, the patched-up veteran jockey who hadn't won a race at Keeneland all season.
Wild Syn, winning by 2 1/2 lengths over Suave Prospect before 25,957, was the longest price on the board in the six-horse field and paid $62.40 to win. The only Blue Grass winner who ever paid more was Dust Commander, who fired off a $72.80 mutuel in the 1970 running before winning the Kentucky Derby.
Suave Prospect finished a head in front of Tejano Run, and in fourth place two lengths farther back was Thunder Gulch, the Florida Derby winner who was the 13-10 favorite. Jambalaya Jazz and Gadzook completed the order of finish.
Wild Syn's time of 1:49 1/5 for 1 1/8 miles was not important; the colt's ability to set drowsy early fractions of :24 1/5, :49, 1:13 1/5 and 1:37 2/5 was. Before his $310,000 victory in the Blue Grass, Wild Syn had won only two of five starts and was seventh and third in two stakes appearances.
Romero had never been on Wild Syn before, not even for a morning workout, and he backed into the mount after Julie Krone, the only jockey to ride the colt twice, was named to ride Suave Prospect.
By his own count, Romero, 37, has undergone 24 operations, since 1983, when he nearly died from a sweat-box accident at Oaklawn Park. A light bulb exploded in the reducing room, setting the rubbing alcohol on Romero's body on fire. He sustained burns over 60% of his body and was told by doctors that he would never ride again, but after numerous skin grafts he returned 3 1/2 months later.
In 1990, when Go For Wand broke down in the stretch of the Breeders' Cup Distaff and was euthanized on the track, Romero cracked eight ribs and fractured his right shoulder. His career never recovered after that, and last July he announced his retirement to work as a bloodstock agent. One of his battered knees was bothering him and he had lost his ability to concentrate in big races.
"My retirement was premature," Romero said. He had arthroscopic surgery on the knee, went through rehabilitation and, in November, showed up in Southern California, the toughest spot in the country to make a comeback. The victories at Hollywood Park and Santa Anita were hard to come by--Romero looked rusty and most of his mounts were longshots--and he left California for Kentucky.
"I don't want to name the trainers," Romero said, "but a lot of them told me I was washed up. People ride the riders that are winning, and I haven't been riding good horses. But I used to ride the best horses in the world.
"I'm back to myself now. I'm lucky that my wife (Cricket) is a strong woman, and she's stayed with me all the time. This is my biggest win since the Go For Wand days. Now I can pick my head up again."
Romero won with only 6% of 437 mounts last year and was shut out in 31 stakes races. Through last Tuesday, he had won only eight races this year and he was winless in 22 mounts at Keeneland before the Blue Grass. If Wild Syn was 30-1, the odds against the jockey were even higher.
The Blue Grass outcome left trainers and jockeys puzzled, and it's likely that every horse in the race except Gadzook will get another chance in the Kentucky Derby.
"Can you imagine beating Thunder Gulch and Tejano Run and not winning?" Krone said after Suave Prospect's third second-place finish in a row.
Thunder Gulch, who had beaten Suave Prospect twice by narrow margins in Florida, could have become the Derby favorite with a victory Saturday. Instead, he joins Timber Country as another of trainer Wayne Lukas' horses seeking redemption, and Serena's Song, Lukas' filly, remains a Derby candidate.
"This confuses the Derby even more," Lukas said. "I'm not sure we'll even know by 5:30 in the afternoon on May 6."
Lukas thought that Pat Day rode Thunder Gulch perfectly. At the top of the stretch, they were in third place, behind Wild Syn and Suave Prospect, and only two lengths back. But the challengers had no late punch and Romero's confidence was building.
"At that point," he said, "it was only a question of how much I'd win by."
Wild Syn, a son of Wild Again, the 31-1 winner of the Breeders' Cup Classic in 1984, and Synaformer, a Sovereign Dancer mare, is a father-son project. Jurgen Arnemann, a Berlin-born manufacturer who has lived in Canada and the United States since 1959, bred Wild Syn, and his 26-year-old son, Tom, trains the colt. The older Arnemann owns 170 acres of farmland in Franklin, Ky., and has 14 broodmares.
"I said before the race that we would be lucky if we hit the board," Jurgen Arnemann said. "If the horse comes out of the race 100%, we will go on to the Derby."
Arnemann bought Synaformer, Wild Syn's dam, for $35,000 in 1990, while she was in foal to Sir Harry Lewis. The previous owner of the mare was Lukas, who paid $375,000 for her two years before.