This 3-year-old Song is music to their ears


BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

LOUISVILLE - Imagine a river flowing with fuel. Consider the consequences of trying to ford it with a flame. Ponder what might possess you to take that plunge.

Bob Baffert already has his answer. His burning desire is for Unbridled's Song.

"I'd swim in a river of gasoline with a torch up my (back) to get that horse," the covetous trainer said Friday at Churchill Downs.

From the opposite end of Barn 33, Baffert looks at Unbridled's Song with longing. This is one of those 3-year-olds that fire the imagination and stir the soul. Despite a tender foot and a perilous post position, the imposing gray colt is the 8-5 favorite for today's 122nd Kentucky Derby.

Given these obstacles, and the inherit difficulty of the Derby, there can be only one good reason to bet this horse today. That would be greatness.

"You could have tied him to the grandstand, and he'll still beat this field," owner Ernie Paragallo promises.

"I don't think we'll bronze him and put him in the infield," D. Wayne Lukas said, "but he's the best horse in the race."

Almost had him

Lukas is scheduled to saddle five starters in today's 19-horse traffic jam, but he suspects that the best of the lot slipped through his grasp. America's most prolific trainer - winner of the last five Triple Crown races - twice tried to buy Unbridled's Song at auction. Both times, he finished second in the bidding.

After the second auction sale fell through - veterinarians discovered a small bone chip in the colt's left front ankle - Lukas was still prepared to pay handsomely for the horse. This time, Paragallo decided against selling.

Lukas recognized Unbridled's Song as a rare rhapsody. Truth be told, the colt's quality was fairly evident to everyone. William McDonald of International Horse Brokers called Unbridled's Song "the best-looking horse that I've ever seen." Buzz Chace, stable manager for Paraneck Stable, was sufficiently impressed that he convinced Paragallo to spend $200,000 on the colt at the 1994 Saratoga Yearling Sale.

"He looked like he owned the courtyard at Saratoga," Chace recalled. "We sent him to Ocala (Fla.) to be broke, and the word was out on him after six weeks of training as a 2-year-old."

Not that there should have been much mystery. Unbridled's Song's father was 1990 Derby winner Unbridled; his maternal grandfather (Caro) sired 1988 Derby winner Winning Colors.

Such a horse is sure to evoke some excitement on the first Saturday in May, but Paragallo has been predicting a Triple Crown since last fall. The colt subsequently rewarded his confidence with a record-setting run in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. More recently, Unbridled's Song has won the Florida Derby and the Wood Memorial and has his own site on the Internet (http: //napanet.net/unbridledssong). Typically, the Derby favorite is overhyped and underachieving. The last one to reach the Winner's Circle was Spectacular Bid in 1979, and few have faced so many late-breaking barriers as Unbridled's Song.

First there was the flap over footwear: Would Unbridled's Song wear "egg-bars" or "Z-bars," and could either shoe relieve the pressure on his tender heel? (Trainer Jim Ryerson said Friday that he would not settle on shoes until today.)

Outside start

Then there was the problem about post position: Originally assigned to the No. 20 gate on the extreme outside, where only one Derby winner has started, Unbridled's Song was moved to No. 19 Friday after City By Night was scratched. The 19th post has yet to produce a Derby winner.

The horse's handlers argue that the outside post is not nearly as bad as some suppose: No danger of being squeezed at the start; plenty of track to the first turn. Still, it makes the 1ì-mile run for the roses that much longer, and none of the Derby horses has raced at that distance before.

"If this was a mile, we'd all be in trouble," Bob Baffert said. "That (post position) is kind of an equalizer. We need every chance we can get."

Published May 4, 1996.