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THE INSIDE TRACK | COMMENTARY

One-Two Derby Punch Was Truly a Knockout

May 11, 1997|ANDREW BEYER | WASHINGTON POST

Seldom in recent years has the Kentucky Derby produced a result as satisfying as Silver Charm's victory--and I don't say this only because I picked the winning exacta.

The race generated high drama, as Captain Bodgit made a powerful charge through the stretch, only to be repulsed in the final yards by a leader who wouldn't give up. The outcome was a contrast to the many Derbies that are decided by racing luck; the best horse beat the second-best horse.

And these are very good horses, indeed.

The Derby winner is usually overhyped because the Churchill Downs classic gets so much media attention, but Silver Charm and Captain Bodgit are both worthy of praise. They delivered the two strongest Derby performances since at least 1990.

In the past, oversized fields, heavy traffic and an insane early pace often have made the Derby's outcome fluky or undefinitive.

Last year, the racing world wanted to see if Unbridled's Song was a superstar, but he had virtually no chance after breaking from Post 19 and chasing a destructively fast pace. The victors in Derbies of the 1990s generally have been so undistinguished that even hard-core fans have to jog their memories to remember the likes of Grindstone, Go for Gin and Sea Hero, all of whom benefited from easy trips.

Although part of the Derby's charm is that any dreamer can take a shot at it, the contrast between past cavalry charges and this year's race--with a manageable field of 13--is a good argument that Churchill Downs ought to limit the size of the field to, say, 14 horses.

Not a single horse in the field was compromised by a difficult trip. The racing world had wanted to see if Pulpit was a superstar. Dueling head-and-head for the lead at a sensible pace, he had every chance to win, and he answered the question: He's not.

Both Silver Charm and Captain Bodgit were able to rally without encountering any traffic problems.

These 3-year-olds are going to be the dominant forces in the sport if they stay healthy. Silver Charm is so lightly raced that trainer Bob Baffert promised, "You haven't seen the best of him yet." Alex Solis, Captain Bodgit's jockey, said, "Hopefully, my horse and Silver Charm could have a rivalry like Affirmed and Alydar."

He could be right.

Each colt delivered the peak effort of his career in the race that had been his objective for months--and this was no accident.

In the two weeks leading up to the Derby, handicapper Steve Davidowitz wrote daily commentaries for the National Racing Report on the horses' training, and almost every day he wrote that two horses stood out from the pack in their appearance and demeanor: Silver Charm and Captain Bodgit. Their one-two finish was the result of skillful preparation by their trainers.

Gary Capuano was unknown outside of Maryland until a few months ago, when Captain Bodgit emerged as a Derby contender, and he managed the colt coolly and professionally. Of the narrow loss, he said Sunday: "It hurts--especially in my case. You don't get this chance every day or every year."

But the 33-year-old's handling of Captain Bodgit ought to attract the attention of other owners. He deserves many more opportunities to train high-class horses.

Baffert distinguished himself, too. He had been haunted by Cavonnier's excruciating photo-finish loss last year--"I still think about it every other day," he admitted before this Derby--and he was surely hungering to win it.

Baffert had a second colt, Anet, the impressive winner of the Lone Star Derby, who would have given him a powerful one-two punch Saturday. But Baffert chose not to enter Anet; the colt, he said, wasn't seasoned enough, and wasn't ready for the demanding 1 1/4-mile distance.

And that made him a refreshing contrast with Wayne Lukas. A winner of three Derbies, Lukas had said publicly that his colt, Deeds Not Words, didn't belong in the field after being drubbed in his only two starts as a 3-year-old. But faced with the prospect that he wouldn't have a Derby entrant for the first time in 17 years, Lukas entered Deeds Not Words anyway.

While Deeds Not Words was finishing last, Baffert's good judgment was being rewarded in the richest possible way. Horse races rarely have such a perfect, storybook ending.

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