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Derby 133 - News Of Racing's Death Is Greatly Exaggerated...By Nelson Lardner

Too many sporting skeptics go out of their way to pooh-pooh thoroughbred racing. Sure, the horses no longer enjoy their exalted, sustained position in the sporting firmament. They don't nickname star horses after operettas anymore, folks (Equipoise, the "Chocolate Soldier", for you history buffs). Upcoming generations of gamblers face a multiplicity of modern options, and niche games don't benefit from such fragmentation. The good old days of the baseball/boxing/racing triumvirate are long-gone, and mediocre (or worse) thoroughbred meetings find it increasingly hard to compete in an environment coarsened by the devastating one-two punch comprised of infernal state lotteries - and land based casinos all too convenient to major U. S. cities.

But you put on a sustained, competitive, quality meeting featuring full fields in any convivial setting offering reasonable creature comforts, and you have an attraction. Challenge anyone to attend any Triple Crown event, Breeders' Cup, or such destination meetings as those held at Saratoga, Del Mar, Keeneland, Hot Springs (Oaklawn Park), et al, and report back to me that the entertainment/environment was depressing. I'll refer you to a doctor, and wish you well.

The Kentucky Derby is one of North America's remarkable sporting spectacles. The crowd runs the spectrum, from the swells to the groundlings, and Churchill Downs manages to meet all reasonable expectations. The Derby has been a fixture on the first Saturday in May since the conclusion of World War II, and Churchill reaps the benefits, consistently blessed with crowds in the 130,000 range, and superior weather on most occasions.

Not this time. While a monsoon of the dimensions which resulted in Smarty Jones' Derby being run over a sealed racetrack (a surface over which it was impossible to gain significant ground on the early leaders, leaving "Smarty" and Lion Heart to lead the parade) is no cinch, it's been raining with numbing consistency throughout this racing week, with further precipitation anticipated on Derby Day. The result has not been a track which might be conducive to frontrunners. This week's Churchill main track has been very, very difficult for speed horses to negotiate successfully.

When considered in tandem with the overwhelming effect that the Derby's pace scenario has on each spring's Run for the Roses, you're left to conclude that if they go any quicker than trotting-horse time through the opening three-quarters of a mile Saturday, those in closest attendance to the early pace are unlikely to wind up within hailing distance of the eventual winner. That leads us to the task of addressing this year's handicapping puzzle.

The headlined co-favorites are (a) the undefeated Curlin: three-for-three lifetime (all of those races, this year), and coming off a 10 1/2-length tour de force in the Arkansas Derby three weeks ago, and (b) Street Sense: the more-conventionally-campaigned poster boy for equine musculature who wowed the Churchill crowd with his ten-length win in the Breeders' Cup 35 Juvenile last November.

The aforementioned pros are going to steer clear of Curlin, given his impertinent Icarus-like campaign of but three starts, all of them taking place this year. No Derby winner has failed to race as a 2-year-old in 125 years. Historically, Derbies have been won by horses who were set on a course of gradual development, with their trainers planning to extract maximum performances during the classic season - and not before. Curlin appears to me to be a somewhat more talented version of lightly-raced 1998 Derby favorite Indian Charlie, who ran respectably but greenly, and wound up third behind Bob Baffert stablemate Real Quiet. Use him in gimmicks, if you must, but a straight play would seem imprudent.

With Street Sense, trainer Carl Nafzger may wind up a victim of early success. He brought the son of Street Cry into the Juvenile off a judicious, conservatively-spaced four-race 2-year-old campaign, and the colt ran off and hid, blistering the mile-and-a-sixteenth in 1:42 2/5. Horses that run that fast at 2 seldom win the Derby, as it takes most 2-year-olds more than six months to fully recover from such marked exertions. This is the primary reason why no Juvenile winner has ever won the race. This year's Tampa Bay Derby win was less impressive than the Juvy, and his subsequent second in the Blue Grass was less impressive than either. I'm a huge Nafzger fan, and he could train for me any old time, but he may wind up a casualty of logistics and circumstance, this afternoon.

Thursday night, a Vegas sporting-radio denizen asked me who I thought would wind up the favorite. This typist replied that Curlin would open around 6-1 in the early live betting, as most veteran observers would be unwilling to back him at a short price, leaving Street Sense the early choice. I added that when the public weighed in on race day, the pair'd likely close as virtual co-favorites - but the Lanes End winner, Hard Spun, would likely emerge as the "wise guy" horse and third-favorite, the recipient of weighty play from savvy sources seeking a legitimate vehicle to ride into battle against the headline horses.

So much legitimate Derby handicapping is contingent on judgment of likely pace scenarios -- and the racing surface. The fact that Churchill's track-maintenance folks sealed the august oval's dirt surface in Smarty Jones' year was outrageous; to contest an American classic over a sealed strip is anything but conducive to fair sport and conventional race-shape . . . but given the weather reports, they may do it again . . . and if they do it, Hard Spun would likely derive the greatest benefit. Conditioned by one of my favorite "young turk" trainers, Larry Jones, the son of Danzig (another handicapping plus, given the wet track) knows his horse. A winner of five of six, all by open daylight, Hard Spun's lone loss was over an Oaklawn Park surface he didn't relish in mid-February's Southwest Stakes. After the colt's loss there, Jones called an audible, and selected Turfway's Lanes End Stakes for his next encounter. The bay colt figures to like Churchill, and the wetter, the better.

Negatives? Jockey Mario Pino's a Derby virgin, but he's a canny veteran who's danced tens of thousands of dances, and I trust him in this spot. The horse hasn't raced since his gallop in the Lanes End, six weeks ago . . . only Barbaro, last year, has won this race off a layoff of more than four weeks, in the past half-century.

Another caveat: Hard Spun's pedigree features a female family (the colt's out of the Turkoman mare Turkish Tryst) whose sire line traces back to the enormously influential Raise A Native. No Derby winner whose mom traces back through Raise A Native in the pedigree's top line had EVER won a Derby - prior to Barbaro.

Barbaro was a truly exceptional, remarkable, courageous animal - who beat a better Derby field than this one. As an individual, Hard Spun has impressed me enormously. He's more seasoned than Curlin, and there's a far-better chance that his best career effort remains ahead of him . . . the nagging question that dogs Street Sense and his supporters.

Enjoy the day, the sights, sounds, and ambiance. Watch the early races with a judicious eye, to determine for yourself how the track is playing - vital advice, anytime, but even more important when tracking a saturated surface. The undercard is laden with solid opportunities for the judicious handicapper with a knack for successfully handling the intricacies of Louisville evaluations, and the huge pari-mutuel pools permit the financially well-endowed to take huge swings without materially affecting the odds they receive. Let the horse be with you.

Nelson Lardner

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