It’s approaching 50 years to the day that arguably the three best 3-year-olds since (Bellamy Road, Afleet Alex and Bandini) ran in the Kentucky Derby.
The year was 1957 and the horses were Gallant Man, Round Table and Bold Ruler. None of them won. Gallant Man should have, but his rider, Bill Shoemaker, misjudged the finish line and, as the chart of the race says, "he could not overtake Iron Liege when back on stride."
Gallant Man lost by a nose to Iron Liege and Bill Hartack. Round Table, ridden by Ralph Neves, was third, nearly three lengths behind Gallant Man and three lengths in front of Bold Ruler, the 6-5 favorite who was ridden by Eddie Arcaro.
Each horse went on to outstanding careers at stud, with Bold Ruler becoming one of the greatest sires of all time.
No one knows what will happen if and when Bellamy Road, Afleet Alex and Bandini go to the breeding shed, but if they make it to the 131st Run for the Roses on May 7, they will command the majority of the wagering support thanks to their most recent races.
Bellamy Road won the Wood Memorial by a Secretariat-like 17Â½ lengths. Afleet Alex was dazzling in both presence and performance in winning the Arkansas Derby by eight lengths, while Bandini at last fulfilled expectations of his followers by overtaking favored High Limit and strolling to a six-length romp in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes.
Bellamy Road established himself as the Derby favorite, with Afleet Alex and Bandini in close pursuit. That doesn’t mean one of them will win.
Bizarre things happen to favorites in the Kentucky Derby, especially over the past quarter century. Since Spectacular Bid won as the 3-10 favorite in 1979, only two choices have won, Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000 and Smarty Jones last year.
Enough money has been burned on favorites to balance the budget, to wit:
In 1980, 2-1 choice Rock-hill Native finished fifth; in 1981 the entry of Proud Appeal and Golden Derby was 18th and 21st as the 2-1 favorites; 5-2 favorite Air Forbes Won was eighth in 1982; the three-ply entry of Marfa, Balboa Native and Total Departure was off the board at $2.40-1 in 1983 to victorious Sunny’s Halo, the second choice at $2.50-1; the 5-2 entry of Life’s Magic and Althea could do no better than eighth in 1984; Spend A Buck won by 51/4 lengths in 1985, when 6-5 Chief’s Crown was third; 2-1 Snow Chief wasn’t within hailing distance of Ferdinand in 1986.
Demons Begone bled and was pulled up at 2-1 in 1987; victorious Winning Colors and ninth-place Private Terms were each $3.40-1 in 1988, but -Private Terms had $4,374 more bet on him, making him the slight favorite; the entry of Easy Goer and Awe Inspiring was second and third at 4-5 in 1989; Summer Squall was second at 2-1 in 1990; Hansel was 10th at 5-2 in 1991; Arazi was eighth at 9-10 in 1992; Prairie Bayou was second at 4-1 in 1993; in a race that’s still a mystery, Holy Bull at 2-1 beat only two horses in 1994.
Timber Country could do no better than third as the stronger half of a 3-1 entry with Serena’s Song in 1995; Unbridled’s Song was fifth as the 7-2 choice in 1996; Captain Bodgit missed by a head at 3-1 in 1997; Indian Charlie was third at 5-2 to stablemate Real Quiet at 8-1 in 1998; Excellent Meeting and entrymate General Challenge were no better than fifth at 9-2 in 1999; Point Given was fifth at 9-5 in 2001; Harlan’s Holiday was seventh at 6-1 in 2002; and Empire Maker was second at 5-2 in 2003.
The redoubtable Smarty Jones, at a liberal 4-1, won as favorite last year.
Thus the message is clear when it comes to Derby favorites: bettors beware.
"It’s a very deep field," cautioned Bob Baffert, a three-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer who was on the outside looking in at press time because his longshot Sort It Out had only $65,000 in graded stakes earnings, leaving him 21st on the list of hopefuls for the Derby, which allows for only the top 20 in that category.
"It’s the toughest Derby I’ve seen in years," Baffert said. "Bellamy Road’s Wood speaks for itself, but Afleet Alex looked awesome, better than Bandini. High Fly (Florida Derby winner) looked good, too. Those four are pretty tough horses."
Track surface plays a critical role in the eyes of Baffert.
"Point Given got beat because of our mistake," he said. "We were chasing a really fast pace and we didn’t know his style. We didn’t know what he wanted to so. Some horses don’t like the Churchill Downs surface. I can tell when I breeze them there whether they like it or not. Keeneland is a weird track, too. Some horses love it but they don’t run that well after they’ve run there. It’s like a goat trail."
So who’s your pick?
"If Bellamy Road runs the race he ran in the Wood," Baffert said, "they’re all in trouble."
Sounds like a solid endorsement, but I remember what trainer Howie Zucker said after his Crafty C.T. ran second to Point Given in the 2001 Santa Anita Derby: "If that horse doesn’t win the Triple Crown, something’s wrong."
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