Derby debate tricky
Does Favorite Trick have real shot?

Sunday, April 26, 1998

BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

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A convincing case can be made for Favorite Trick. A persuasive argument can be built against him. The Horse of the Year has reached the Kentucky Derby with nine victories and no consensus.

He has the purses, but not the pedigree; a great record, but only grudging respect. He is ridden by the immortal Pat Day, but saddled with an ignoble dosage index. He is renowned as a sprinter, but disparaged for his relative lack of speed.

If a difference of opinion is what makes horse races, Favorite Trick is at the foundation of this run for the roses. He will engender more debate than the mint julep this week at Churchill Downs. If he should win the world's foremost horse race, a thousand theorists will nod knowingly. If he should lose, another thousand will decide their Derby formula is fact.

lacombe
Joe LaCombe
The truth is that no event in sports is so hard to handicap, and no amount of pre-race evidence can be considered conclusive. The Kentucky Derby conforms to no pattern save unpredictability.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the last Triple Crown winner, Affirmed, and the 19th anniversary of the last successful Derby favorite, Spectacular Bid. A convention of meteorologists and a collection of the Beardstown Ladies investment guides could not generate more erroneous expertise than is dispensed on the first Saturday in May in Louisville.

Undefeated Indian Charlie figures to be this year's favorite, but would be the most lightly raced winner since 1915. Nationalore, the most experienced horse in the field, has failed to win in 15 tries. With a large field running an unfamiliar distance -- a mile and a quarter -- the Derby customarily amounts to a crapshoot.

Joe LaCombe is living proof. The retired West Chester businessman had never owned a horse all by himself before he attended a February, 1997 auction of 2-year-olds in training at Ocala, Fla.

LaCombe, 65, is a former franchisee of Howard Schultz and Associates, an accounts payable auditing business. He was born in Brooklyn, and his formative years at the track were largely devoted to the trotters. After his business brought him to West Chester, he started speculating on thoroughbreds in partnership with a colleague, Bill Bronstad, with a horse called Black Top.

"It's kind of a sad story," LaCombe said. "I had him about 2 1/2-3 years ago. He won some races down in Texas and died of colic as a 3-year-old"

Initially, LaCombe's piece of the action cost him between $10,000 and $15,000 per horse. As the size of his investments escalated, so did his desire to become more directly involved.

Trainer Pat Byrne prepared a list of three prospects for LaCombe to consider at the Ocala sale. The trainer's wife, Jill, performed the bidding on LaCombe's behalf. She exhausted his investment capital by bidding $100,000 for the first of the three horses to enter the auction ring. As fate would have it, that horse was Favorite Trick. So much for science. "He had a great stride and a very, very good temperament," LaCombe said. "His stride, for a small horse, was really reaching out. But at that point, I didn't know enough to tell a correct horse from an incorrect horse."

The Jockey Club counts 34,672 registered foals in the current 3-year-old crop. The odds against any one of them even reaching the Derby are roughly 2,000-1. To find one on your first try is like catching lightning in a shot glass. To find one worthy of winning the Derby is akin to running across the Holy Grail at a garage sale. "My luck was extreme," LaCombe said. "But it takes a lot of luck."

Some of the smarter money believes LaCombe's luck has run its course; that Favorite Trick's third-place finish in the Arkansas Derby revealed flaws that had been suspected and suppressed during the colt's nine-race winning streak.

"Many handicappers and pedigree experts thought it was just a matter of time before Favorite Trick's shortcomings were unmasked," racing oracle Andy Beyer wrote in the Washington Post. "Yes, the champ had won all nine of his races before (the Arkansas Derby), but he hadn't run exceptionally fast, and as a son of the sprinter Phone Trick, he figured to be less effective at longer distances. The Arkansas Derby was his first attempt to go 1 1/8 miles -- and he failed the test."

All tracks are not comparable, but only minutes before Favorite Trick faded down the stretch at Oaklawn, Rick Pitino's Halory Hunter covered the same distance at Keeneland in 1:47 4 - 5, fully two seconds faster than Favorite Trick's time. The preceding Saturday, Indian Charlie won the 1 1/8-mile Santa Anita Derby in 1:47 flat. (Event of the Year, scratched from the Derby because of a knee injury, had earlier run 1:47 in the Jim Beam Stakes.)

Prep races can be a poor indicator of Derby potential. Secretariat, the only other colt to be named Horse of the Year as a 2-year-old, ran third in the Wood Memorial in his final tuneup for the 1973 Triple Crown. The defeat was later attributed to an abscess.

"Sorry to say, we don't have an excuse," LaCombe said.

Yet Bill Mott, who took over Favorite Trick's training this spring, thought some blame belonged to Day, who permitted the horse to bolt for the lead out of the starting gate after riding him to a series of late-surging victories.

"I don't know if it (was) a matter of Pat misjudging the pace," Mott said. "I think he probably misjudged the horse or had so much confidence in the horse that he just envisioned him doing something he's done in the past.

"Am I being critical of Pat? No. I think we all have to make adjustments in everything we do, whether it be training, riding or whatever . . . I just think some minor alterations probably would have made him win the race."

Both trainer and owner rejected the notion of changing riders for the Derby. Pat Day remains the winningest jockey ever to ride at Churchill Downs, and won the 1992 Derby aboard Lil E. Tee

"Never, ever, ever did I consider replacing Pat Day," LaCombe said. "The whole idea is kind of revolting to me."

Day has ridden all 10 of Favorite Trick's races to date, and their partnership has produced $1,341,998 in purses. This is more than twice the earnings of every other Derby contender except Cape Town. Favorite Trick's nine victories are four more than his nearest rivals in what figures to be a field of 16.

"Right now," Bill Mott said Thursday, "I don't want to change places with anybody."

By Saturday night, Mott may see things differently. Until then, there's no way of telling.

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