HOT SPRINGS, Ark. -- Favorite Trick's magic spell is shattered. His dominance has done a disappearing act.
The reigning Horse of the Year, undefeated entering his last tuneup for the Kentucky Derby, revealed a mind of his own Saturday afternoon, and it was reckless. Favorite Trick botched the Arkansas Derby just as surely as Victory Gallop beat him, losing his longest test with a headstrong sprint from the starting gate.
"This was totally uncharacteristic," rider Pat Day said in the jockeys room. "That's never been a problem before. Moments before the race, you couldn't have put a gun to my head and made me believe he wasn't going to settle for me."
Moments before the 1 1/8-mile race, Favorite Trick had been 1-5 to win, an odds-on choice so overwhelming that the finish seemed a formality. But because tradition demands that a race be run before a trophy can be presented, the element of surprise is never entirely eliminated.
Trainer Bill Mott knew he was in trouble when Favorite Trick broke from the gate like an unguided missile. Owner Joe LaCombe watched his horse duel for the lead with Battle Royale, a 131-to-1 longshot, and wondered what could have possessed the colt to spend his energy so soon. Day said he might have "manhandled" Favorite Trick to achieve a less punishing pace, but this was hindsight.
"I knew it was suicide to be head-to-head with the leader around the first turn," Day said, "but I couldn't talk him into relaxing."
What all this means may not be all that much. Though Favorite Trick finished third, fading in the stretch where he normally excels, he finished no more than a neck from the winner's circle. Victory Gallop passed him on the outside, Hanuman Highway on the rail, and the finish was not far from a photo.
Derby still likely
LaCombe said he saw nothing to dissuade him from entering the Kentucky Derby. Mott was less definitive, but he is a trainer whose first instinct is always to resist the impulsive.
"I'm a slow thinker," Mott said. "I'd like to sleep on it and watch the film."
Ultimately, the Derby call is LaCombe's decision, but he generally defers to Mott's judgment. The guess here is they will let Favorite Trick try the Derby unless some injury should surface before May 2. The belief here is that this horse certainly belongs in the biggest race going.
Reviewing the race near the finish line, LaCombe was quick to point out that seven of the last eight Derby winners lost their final prep race before winning at Churchill Downs. None of them had better credentials than Favorite Trick. A good horseman ought to be able to overlook one bad day.
"This doesn't change my opinion about where we should go," said LaCombe, the retired Cincinnati executive. "I just don't think this race set up for us. I think he ran a good race. It's just the way it worked out."
It would have worked out better for racing had Favorite Trick prevailed. He was the first two-year-old to win Horse of the Year since the incomparable Secretariat, and could have given the Derby three undefeated starters. Indian Charlie and Event of the Year are still unblemished, but both have won only four career races. Favorite Trick was 9-0 before his Oaklawn oversight.
Racing is so desperate for a horse that can draw new customers to the track that even those who had defeated Favorite Trick wondered if this was the best thing for the business. Art Preston, one of Victory Gallop's owners, said Saturday's upset was "bittersweet." Much as they like money, horsemen are still suckers for mystique.
"You can't take anything away from Favorite Trick," said Elliott Walden, who trains Victory Gallop. "Just because he got beat once doesn't mean he's not a great horse. We shouldn't get down on him."
Even a one-trick pony deserves a second chance.
Derby prep coverage from Associated Press