Thursday, May 03, 2001

Post positions overrated

        LOUISVILLE — They have tricked up the draw for the Kentucky Derby. Once deemed too mundane for television, it now kills an hour of ESPN's air time and untold millions of viewer brain cells.

        It involves the hollowest kind of hype — dumb luck passed off as pseudo strategy. Drafting post positions instead of allotting them at random does not change the Derby's essential character. It's still chaos.

        “The greatest thing about this game is that it's not an exact science,” trainer Nick Zito said Wednesday afternoon. “And no one can figure it out.”

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        Zito has won the Derby twice, but he continues to carry himself with an expression of perpetual astonishment. Awarded the first selection
in Wednesday's draw, Zito placed A P Valentine in the No.9 hole, the center of the 17-horse field. It was as good a guess as any.

        Doping the Derby is an exercise in futility, like lassoing butterflies or enjoying mint juleps. No 3-year-old races at this distance before the Derby, and there's no telling how any of them will cope with the big field, the huge crowd or the mounting exhaustion at the top of the stretch.

        When Fusaichi Pegasus won last year's race, it ended a 20-year streak of failed favorites. When Churchill Downs decided to add drama to the draw, in 1998, it was on the flawed premise that the people making the post selections had some clue as to what might work.

No logic, just luck

        The fact is the trainers have drafted no better than do the Cincinnati Bengals. For three years, the first three trainers to choose their Derby posts have failed to finish in the money. They tend to gravitate to the center of the inside gate, though four of the last six Derby winners have started from the outside auxiliary gate.

        Logic says horses in the auxiliary gate are at a disadvantage because they must run farther to reach the finish. Savvy, however, says location is a lot less important than locomotion. If a horse is fast enough, the 1 1/4-mile Derby is long enough to compensate for any initial inconvenience.

        “In the end,” Bob Baffert said, “it's all about the horses.”

        Like Zito, Baffert has trained two Derby winners. In Point Given (9-5) and Congaree (5-1), he trains this year's two Derby favorites. Yet the flippant fellow with the silver hair and the dark glasses makes no pretense of omniscience. When procedural questions arose about how the Derby entries were handled — questions that could have forced a redraw — Baffert saw no advantage in lodging a protest despite Point Given's No.17 post.

        “I've picked perfect and been wiped out,” Baffert said. “You've got to have the horse.”

        Racing's problem is that having the best horses no longer is considered exciting enough for a mass audience. Proliferating casinos have siphoned off much of racing's demographic, and competition from ever-expanding sports leagues has helped marginalize racing's major events.

        Billy Reed, the sage columnist of the Lexington Herald-Leader, recently used his platform to exhort prominent sportswriters to add the Derby to their travel plans.

        He did not, however, recommend the draw.

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Point Given early Derby favorite

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