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If You Love a Mystery, Check Out This Entry

April 30, 1999|RANDY HARVEY

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — For intrigue, Saturday's 125th Kentucky Derby ranks with the best of them. There are at least half a dozen plots and subplots. Dick Francis should write the novel.

Bob Baffert is trying to become the first trainer to win the Derby three years in a row. One of his three horses, Excellent Meeting, is half of the favored entry with General Challenge and could become the fourth filly--the first since 1988--to win.

Jockey Chris McCarron, dropped by Baffert from General Challenge, has a chance to get even on Stephen Got Even. Jockey Corey Nakatani is riding Desert Hero for Richard Mandella, who became the horse's trainer a few weeks ago after Wally Dollase was fired. Dollase is Nakatani's father-in-law.

Valhol is in the Derby with an assist from his lawyer. (Racehorse Haynes?) But jockey Billy Patin was removed amid suspicion he prodded the horse to victory in the Arkansas Derby with an illegal electrical device.

Racing authorities believe such a practice carries their new slogan, "Go, Baby, Go," to an unacceptable extreme.

Adding to the intrigue here Saturday is the presence of two mystery horses.

Neither Worldly Manner nor Aljabr has run an official race since September, and, if either wins, he would be the first to do so here without running previously as a 3-year-old since Morvich in 1922.

That consideration, along with the fact that neither has looked like Secretariat or even Secretariat's goat in workouts since arriving from Dubai last week, led to their listing at 12-1 as an entry in the morning line.

If you are tempted by such vices, that would be a gamble worth taking. Both horses are owned by a man who is no mystery at all within thoroughbred racing.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, the crown prince and defense minister of Dubai, has been Europe's dominant owner for almost 15 years, winning every classic from the 2,000 Guineas to the English Derby to the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe.

But, after starting only one horse--eighth-place Arazi in 1992--in America's most prestigious race, he is embarking on an all-out campaign to win it.

On his first visit to the Kentucky Derby, Sheikh Mohammed, 50, has been the object of media fascination. Emerging early Thursday morning from Barn 45 on Churchill Downs' backside wearing a royal (what else?) blue sweater over a blue work shirt, bluejeans and boots, he was immediately ambushed by reporters.

Although obsessively private, he was a good sport. When asked if he was familiar with the song, "My Old Kentucky Home," he said, "Of course, very emotional, the sun shines bright. . . ."

Baffert, who has gotten to know him during two visits to Sheikh Mohammed's own race, the $5-million Dubai World Cup, calls him "a regular guy, for a defense minister."

As the story goes, he might have been finance minister but his late father, Dubai's ruler, feared that Sheikh Mohammed would spend all of the money on horses.

Since he bought his first horses as a Cambridge student in 1976, it is estimated he has invested more than $3 billion in his thoroughbred operation. The $5 million he paid to John and Betty Mabee of San Diego for Worldly Manner after the colt won the Del Mar Futurity last summer will never be missed.

It was a bargain-basement price compared to the $10.2 million Sheikh Mohammed paid in 1983 for Snaafi Dancer. He not only never ran a race, he proved to be infertile.

Every billion has been well spent, Sheikh Mohammed said Thursday. One of seven independent tribal states of the United Arab Emirates, Dubai has diminishing oil reserves and, to compensate, is trying to establish itself as an international center for business and tourism.

Sports, horse racing in particular, have brought attention to the city-state hard by the Persian Gulf.

But it is a labor of love for Sheikh Mohammed, who arrived at his wedding riding Cossack-style on a white Arabian horse. He named his stable, Godolphin, after one of the three original Arabians that was crossed with European horses to create the thoroughbred breed.

"In Arabia, if you have a little food, you give it to the horse first, then the children," he said.

His trainer here is Saeed bin Suroor, a 32-year-old former policeman known as "the Ghost" because of his silent maneuverings on the backside. Sheikh Mohammed says, however, that he has the final word.

So it is Sheikh Mohammed who has been second-guessed for bringing Worldly Manner and Aljabr here with so little seasoning. At home in Dubai, Worldly Manner ran once in a managed trial--sort of a rehearsal, complete with piped-in crowd noise--and Aljabr twice. At least they're fresh.

"I don't blame them," Sheikh Mohammed said of the critics. "They are experts with many years of training and they have the right to say what they think. But I have the right to do what I think.

"We may be wrong. We're learning. It's a big challenge. We don't expect to win it the first time. All I can say definitely is that we will be back.

"I love the Kentucky Derby. It's my hope and my aim to win it in the next four years. That's my hope."

Don't bet against him. The sun shines bright on his Dubai palace.

Randy Harvey can be reached at his e-mail address: randy.harvey@latimes.com.

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