BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Joseph LaCombe is taking a peculiar path toward the Kentucky Derby, but there should be no doubt about his direction.
The West Chester horseman, owner of Derby favorite Favorite Trick, is passing up some big purses to ready his colt to run for the roses. A man gets this close to the biggest prize in his business, and money is no longer his chief motivation.
''I'm not really concerned with the money with any of these races,'' LaCombe said. ''I could always use more. But I'm more concerned with the horse.''
Undefeated in eight races as a 2-year-old, Favorite Trick nonetheless launches his 3-year-old campaign from just off the pace. A recent change of trainers and a 60-day lapse in training have raised concerns the colt won't be ready to run 1 1/4 miles on the first Saturday in May.
Distance is always an issue for Derby prospects, but it is a particularly pressing question for Favorite Trick. The colt is descended from a line of sprinters, and is scheduled to skip the $750,000 Florida Derby to run in the shorter, $100,000 Swale Stakes March 14 at Gulfstream.
These are seen as danger signs.
''There's no question in my mind that there's something suspicious about that horse right now,'' said Turfway Park owner Jerry Carroll. ''My guess would be that there's something they're concerned about, maybe some type of injury. They're trying to make it Horse of the Year, and they're going to keep everything hush-hush about the soundness of the horse.''
LaCombe: Colt not injured
LaCombe said he is unaware of any injuries, but that won't stop the speculation. Rumors are as abundant as hay at racetracks, and Favorite Trick will be scrutinized like Bill Clinton's love life until he either steps in the gate at Churchill Downs or is scratched.
Nothing excites the equine industry so much as a 3-year-old with Triple Crown possibilities. Favorite Trick could be that kind of colt. One hundred days before the race, he was a 5-1 favorite in the Derby Future Book at Harveys. It's a sucker bet, to be sure, but it is also indicative of the impression Favorite Trick has made.
The odds against any single horse winning the Derby are preposterous. According to the Jockey Club, Favorite Trick was one of a crop of 34,672 registered foals. Even as the Derby field narrows, predictions remain perilous. The last Derby favorite to finish first was Spectacular Bid, in 1979. Too many things can go wrong to be sure about this race.
Favorite Trick's first obstacle this year has been the transition between trainers. Pat Byrne, who conditioned the colt as a 2-year-old, left LaCombe to train for Frank Stronach. Bill Mott, who has been training Favorite Trick for the past two weeks, concluded that the colt had been neglected for two months.
''He was not kept in any form of training at all,'' Mott said in a recent interview. ''I don't have an answer for that - I wasn't the one who made that decision to take him out of training. I got the horse after he'd been out of training for 60 days, and now I need to bring him back.''
Mott maps curious route
This helps explain the decision to skip the 1í-mile Florida Derby to sprint seven furlongs in the Swale. Mott would rather run a reasonable distance for small change than risk blowing the Derby by asking too much of his colt too soon.
''He's aiming at the Derby,'' LaCombe said. ''But you have to play this one day by day. Do you put him in a race that will get him the distance but not one he's ready for?''
Clearly, LaCombe and Mott are taking the road less traveled. Four of the past eight Derby winners have prepped in the Florida Derby. No horse has yet won both the Swale and the Derby, though Easy Goer came close in 1989.
''Mott is a pretty clever guy,'' Jerry Carroll said. ''He may be saying, 'I'm going to do something different with this horse. What do we care what people think? Our job is to win the race.' ''
THE RACE. The Kentucky Derby.