LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Mike Battaglia, the handicapper and linemaker at Churchill Downs, considered making the duo from Dubai, China Visit and Curule, field horses for today's 126th running of the Kentucky Derby. Battaglia reconsidered, making the pair 50-1 as a coupled entry in the race instead.
Field horses are horses that, in handicappers' opinions, have the least chance to win. When Battaglia made Paris Prince, winner of the California Derby, a field horse for the Kentucky Derby in 1983, the colt's trainer, Laz Barrera, took it personally and nearly hyperventilated.
No one knows how Sheik Mohammed, who races China Visit and Curule, might have reacted had his horses been dumped into the mutuel field, but the Sheik is confident going into this Derby despite his horses' odds.
The handlers of the Dubai entry have picked the wrong year to show up with unseasoned horses. This is widely recognized as one of the deepest Derby fields in years, and even though most of the pre-race emphasis has been on Fusaichi Pegasus, the Wood Memorial winner, there are a number of solid horses from all sectors. For example, the first three finishers in the Santa Anita Derby--The Deputy, War Chant and Captain Steve--are given good chances, as are High Yield, the Blue Grass winner, and More Than Ready, who almost beat him that day.
The field is so deep that Trippi, undefeated in four starts, is given little chance.
Something new and something familiar are adding to the attractiveness of the race. Jenine Sahadi, who trains The Deputy, could be the first woman to saddle a Derby winner, and Bob Baffert, who has Captain Steve, has always been tough in the race, winning with Silver Charm and Real Quiet in 1997-98 and just missing when Cavonnier was nosed out by Grindstone in 1996.
There's enough early speed in the race to assure an honest pace, and if the track plays the way it did Friday, with horses coming from off the pace to win, today's late runners will be legitimate threats. Among the closers are Aptitude, who chased Fusaichi Pegasus home in the Wood, and Anees, fourth in the Santa Anita Derby and a colt trying to break a sizable jinx: Since the Breeders' Cup Juvenile was first run in 1984, no winners of the race have returned the next year to win the Derby.
People are not exactly laughing at Sheik Mohammed's horses, but even if they were, his sense of humor would get him through. At the post-position ceremony Wednesday, stuck with a bad post for Curule, the sheik went to the big board and facetiously acted as though he was going to steal the No. 8 post that had been assigned to Captain Steve. (Because of Globalize's injury-related scratch Thursday, Captain Steve has moved to No. 7 today).
Despite Sheik Mohammed's optimism, few give much truck to the chances of China Visit and Curule. Nicely bred and talented, they have still run only six times combined, never in the United States, and for now appear overmatched against Fusaichi Pegasus, the 9-5 morning-line favorite, and The Deputy, the 4-1 second choice, and several others in the 19-horse field. They'll be running for $1 million, in a race in which the money really is secondary, on a humid 85-degree day that should be dry now that a chance of showers has been stricken from the forecast.
Surrounded by a ring of reporters five or six deep Friday, the sheik repeatedly said: "Watch for Godolphin [today]. We're going to give the others a big fight."
Godolphin Racing is the umbrella name for the Dubai racing empire that includes Sheik Mohammed and his brother, Sheik Maktoum, members of Dubai's ruling family in the United Arab Emirates. The two sheiks had been racing horses in Europe--and occasionally the U.S.--but in the mid-1990s built a state-of-the-art racing and training facility in Dubai, starting a race whose purse has grown to $6 million, and wintering horses there for a worldwide attack that now includes the Derby.
Sheik Mohammed waded into the Derby in 1992, a partner with Allen Paulson in Arazi, the Derby favorite who ran eighth. Last year, there were no partners as Godolphin entered two horses in the Derby: Aljabr, lame in his stall, was scratched on race day and Worldly Manner was seventh at the wire after running second approaching the quarter pole. Besides breeding his own and buying big time at auction, another of the sheik's strategies is to buy U.S. 2-year-olds after they've already run some. When he goes after a horse, it's usually accompanied by an offer that the other side can't refuse. John Mabee pulled a high figure out of the air, for example, when the sheik asked about Worldly Manner, and the Godolphin leader didn't blink. Worldly Manner, who had won the Del Mar Futurity, went to Dubai for a reported $5 million.