Saturday, May 07, 2005

California Dreamers Strike Derby Gold

I begin this entry with a quote from Bobby Frankel, trainer of one of the horses that ran in this year's Kentucky Derby.

"Can a Santa Anita Derby horse win this race?" Frankel was asked.

[Note for the uninformed: Santa Anita is the most famous race track in California, and the Santa Anita Derby one of the more high-profile prep races for the Kentucky Derby.]

"I don't want to hurt anybody's feelings, but the answer is no," Frankel replied. "That race was like everything else in California racing, subpar."

The quote was part of a longer Los Angeles Times article headlined "It's Looking More Like West Toast...Santa Anita Horses May Be in Over Their Heads," discussing the weakness of the California horses this year that were running in the Derby. There were four of them in a total field of 20. None of them was considered to be an even remotely likely contender; all were running at odds of over 20-1.

Well, whaddya know: one of the reviled Santa Anita Four came from behind to dominate Churchill Downs this afternoon. Giacomo, who went in at 50-1 odds, scored one of the biggest upsets in Derby history, having previously won only once in six starts. (He was apparently promising as a maiden, but never met expectations...until today, when he wildly exceeded them.) The other three Californians came on strong in the homestretch, and though none of them were on the board, they all finished in the top six.

The heavy favorite to win, Bellamy Road, owned by George Steinbrenner (grr), faded to seventh. First the Red Sox, now a California upstart - guess there really are some things money can't buy. :-) (Oh wait, that's the Master Card tagline, not Visa. Whatever.) I feel bad for Nick Zito, though...five entries and he came up empty-handed. But to my mind, that's what happens when you spread yourself that thin...

Of course, conventional wisdom has it that the best horse *doesn't* always win. Favorites almost never win. And I'm no expert on horse racing - what little knowledge I have comes from reading far too many Black Stallion books between the ages of 8-12. But I do watch the Triple Crown every year (on T.V. anyway: some day I hope to go to the actual races, especially the Derby), and I *have* developed a little California pride, despite being an East Coast emigrant. So all I have to say is: go Giacomo!

Oh, and how did Bobby Frankel do? His horse, High Limit, finished dead last.

No hard feelings at all, pal. None at all.

SIDE NOTE: One of the finest Kentucky Derby books ever, in my humble opinion, happens to be one of the aforementioned Black Stallion books: The Black Stallion's Filly by Walter Farley. Yes, it really is that good. As you might guess, it's about the Black Stallion's first daughter - a temperamental, undersized, unraced thing - who's trained by the Black Stallion's trainer & jockey as a long shot for the Derby...and, well, you can guess where this is going. But it's still a surprisingly riveting read, and builds high drama right up to and through the most grueling two minutes of a young horse's life. It's also a highly informative inside view of the horse racing world, despite having been published over fifty years ago. Ironically, the favorite to win the Derby in "The Black Stallion's Filly" is a flashy California horse, who of course crashes and burns spectacularly in the last quarter. Anyway, it's a worthwhile read, and not just for girls going through a horse phase: I'd recommend it for adults, too, who either enjoyed "Seabiscuit" or are curious about all the work, drama, and preparation that goes into the oldest and most celebrated horse race in America.


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