BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer
HOT SPRINGS, Ark. -- If Joe LaCombe of Cincinnati has a concern, it is a lack of concern. If Favorite Trick has a flaw, it might be that he knows just how good he is.
"If he ever loses a race," LaCombe said Friday, "he will lose it because he plays with the field. He only does what he has to do. That could hurt him. But I don't think it ever will."
A thousand things can go wrong in thoroughbred racing, but a horse with the right stuff can sometimes surmount them. Favorite Trick has won nine races on five tracks, on firm footing and mud. He is undefeated for a reason. If he should run in the Kentucky Derby, it will be because of his deeds, not his owner's delusions.
"Nobody knows who Joe LaCombe is," the colt's owner said. "But they know who Favorite Trick is. I want him in there because as an athlete he deserves to be in there. I don't need the self-gratification. I've been given this horse by God to manage his racing career." This is an awesome responsibility. Favorite Trick was the first 2-year-old since Secretariat to be named Horse of the Year, and will go to the post in today's Arkansas Derby as the early favorite to be draped in roses on the first Saturday in May.
It is a dubious distinction. Being the Derby favorite is an honor akin to being the first infantry unit to hit a hostile beach. Chances are, you're not going to make it.
"Bid' last favorite to win
Not since Spectacular Bid's romp in 1979 has the betting choice reached the winner's circle at Churchill Downs, and the past four horses to start the race undefeated finished sixth, seventh, ninth and eighth. The size of the Derby field, the 1 1/4-mile distance, and the vagaries of racing luck make the Derby a slightly safer bet than slot machines.
It is folly, therefore, to suppose anyone knows the secret of Derby success. LaCombe has hired Bill Mott and Pat Day, the winningest trainer and the winningest jockey at Churchill Downs, and his odds are nonetheless listed at only 9-2.
This shows that the Derby is an extraordinarily tough deal, and that Favorite Trick still strikes equine experts as vulnerable. "It's a lot like Evander Holyfield was all those years," Dallas handicapper Paul Skelton said Friday. "He just kept beating everybody and everybody said, "So what?' "
Well, not everybody. Jockey Chris McCarron, who has twice won the Kentucky Derby, finished a distant fourth to Favorite Trick in last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile and is still impressed. "He definitely seems to have the most versatile style of all the (Derby) contenders," McCarron said. "He has good natural speed that gives him the ability to stalk the leaders and relax just off the leaders."
If Favorite Trick's dosage index is not overwhelming, if he was sired by a reputed sprinter, if his sparse spring schedule suggests he may be a little soft, none of this detracts from his ability to finish first.
"There are a lot of different sets of criteria people make up," McCarron said. "Dosage is one, number of starts as a 3-year-old is another, whether they raced as a two-year old. I don't subscribe to any of that."
McCarron argues that conclusions based on the career of Favorite Trick's father fail to recognize that Phone Trick retired prematurely because of an injury, before his ability to run distances could be determined. Some issues develop simply because people need something to talk about when they spend months anticipating a race that spans two minutes.
"Favorite Trick is not a great physical specimen," Pat Day said. "But he has terrific acceleration, he's smart and he has a lot of heart. He's a horse with tactical speed, who pretty much places himself in the race. And he's always there when I call on him. Always."
If Favorite Trick sometimes plays with the field, this is a luxury talent allows. If he does not know how good he is, he must not be paying attention.
Derby prep coverage from Associated Press