Thursday, April 29, 1999

Run for Roses needs pruning




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        LOUISVILLE — The Kentucky Derby should be cut down to size. It is the biggest horse race in the world. It ought to be the best.

        Presently, it isn't possible. Not with 20 tender 3-year-olds scheduled to break from the starting gate, all of them untested at a mile and a quarter. Not when superior steeds are essentially eliminated by preposterous post positions. Not when the field grows so full of frauds that the best horses are frequently boxed in.

        The Run for the Roses is in need of some careful pruning. Otherwise, it will continue to be less of a race and more of a riot. There is a certain charm in the unpredictable, and a certain danger in elitism, but there ought to be a reasonable expectation that the best horse might win.

        No Derby favorite has won since 1979, and this is hardly a coincidence. No other race is run so regularly with such a bloated field. According to Jockey Club spokesman John Cooney, only five of the 257,413 races entered in the Equibase data bank between 1995 and 1998 included more than 14 starters. Three of them were Kentucky Derbies.

        Barring scratches, Saturday's Derby will have 20 starters — the maximum permitted since the 23-horse cavalry charge of 1974. (There were 21 starters in 1981, but only because of a court order). This compares to a 1998 industry average of 8.17 horses a race. Presumably, at least five or six of Saturday's starters would be better suited to pulling a plow.

Size sacrifices strategy
        “There's no question that the size of the field makes it a greater game of chance,' said Richard Mandella, trainer of Desert Hero. “There might be a couple of the best horses who don't get to run the race they want to. It makes it more exciting.”

        More exasperating, too. Horsemen spend a disproportionate share of their waking hours plotting a path to the winner's circle at Churchill Downs, only to be forced to contend with factors virtually unknown in any other significant stakes. Consider how a cellist might feel if a life spent dreaming of Carnegie Hall resulted in a recital at a subway stop.

        “I don't think you can strategize it as much as a race with six or eight (horses),” said Elliott Walden, trainer of Menifee. “You need to leave it in the hands of the rider, because so much strategizing just goes out the window. The best horse is probably going to be compromised more (with 20) than if the field is 14. Fourteen would be an optimum number.”

        Menifee, winner of the Blue Grass Stakes, was rewarded for his efforts Wednesday with the 19th post in the 125th Derby. Though no horse has ever won the Derby from this spot in the starting gate, Menifee's owner is undaunted.

        Arthur Hancock's high school geometry tells him a horse that runs a straight line from the 19th hole runs only 21/2 feet further than a rival who starts from the rail. The trouble with the Pythagorean theorem, as applied to horse races, is that few horses are able to run a straight line through so much traffic on Derby day.

Why not weight priority?
        Bob Baffert, trainer of the last two Derby winners, would like to see the draw weighted in favor of the most worthy. He would have trainers choose post positions based on some objective order instead of a random draw. That way the strongest contenders could earn priority, and delusional owners might be forced to face facts.

        “What I'd like to see is (something) like they do in car racing, where the most earnings gets the first choice,” Baffert said. “Give the horses that have really run and run and run, give them an (edge). I don't think that would be a bad idea.”

        Baffert's proposal probably would not reduce the size of the field significantly, but it might make the Derby more manageable. The good horses might get a cleaner trip. The bad horses still could compete.

        At root, it's an issue of supply and demand. There's only one Kentucky Derby, and everyone wants to win it.

        “It's the greatest race in the world,” trainer Nick Zito said. “I don't know how it's going to get smaller.”

        Tim Sullivan welcomes your e-mail at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

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