Stevens confident Sunday Break can dance to Derby

Apr 9, 2002 10:20 AM

There’s this joke about the wife who catches her husband in bed with another woman.

Persistently but unsuccessfully, the husband tries to convince his spouse that what she sees is not what she thinks, but merely a misperception.

But the wife is unyielding in her conviction.

Finally, in utter desperation, he asks her, “Hey, who are you going to believe, me or your eyes?”

That punch line could apply to the victory in an allowance race by Sunday Break on March 27, a race in which he danced the hula in deep stretch, only to regain his stride and find another gear to win going away by a length.

There are those in racing who interpret Sunday Break’s “break dance” as baneful, one that forebodes bad things for the colt in Saturday’s Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, and certainly for the Kentucky Derby on May 4.

On the other hand, there are those staunch in their belief that Sunday Break is the best thing to hit racing since the Pick Six, and they point to the Japan-bred colt’s rapid, athletic and impressive recovery after his version of the Can-Can.

Who are you going to believe, me or your eyes?

Gary Stevens believes his eyes, and he should know. He rode the horse.

He rides him again in the Wood, and if the fates allow, will ride him in the Run for the Roses, a race the Hall of Fame jockey has captured three times, aboard Winning Colors in 1988, Thunder Gulch in 1995 and Silver Charm in 1997.

If anyone should know the cause and effect of the controversial March 27 escapade, Stevens should. And he has little patience for Sunday Break’s critics.

“I see these so-called experts every year fall flat on their faces,” Stevens said at Santa Anita before departing for New York. “I’d like to know how many (Kentucky Derby) winners they’ve picked in the last 25 years. I’m not making any (Derby) predictions, because first of all, with the size of the Kentucky Derby field, it looks like he’s going to have to win or run very, very well in the Wood to have enough earnings to even get in to the Derby. So we’ll just cross one bridge at a time. If we get to the Derby, great; if not, he’s a very, very good colt and he’s going to have a lot of Grade I’s by his name by the time he’s finished running, that’s all I can tell you.

“Obviously, if they’re talking about him, then somebody’s worried about him, so I don’t even want to get involved in that aspect of it. I ride him, I’m glad I’m riding him, and as far as making any predictions, I’ll let him speak for himself on the race track.”

As a world-class jockey, the 39-year-old Stevens has learned to be prepared for anything when riding a flighty thoroughbred, as he was when Sunday Break ducked in.

“It surprised me and it didn’t,” Stevens said of the incident, “because he’s shown a tendency when he’s on his own, like in the mornings, when you work him, to look around. The first couple times I rode him, I didn’t go to the gate with the lead pony and he looked at everything. He’s just very, very attentive. I wouldn’t say he’s spooky or anything, but he does things so easily and he’s so athletic, if he’s not under pressure or if he doesn’t have a target in front of him, he tends to play around a little bit.

“I was between a rock and a hard spot (when Sunday Break broke stride) because I didn’t want to put a hard race into him. We came into the stretch and he was absolutely galloping. I thought, ”˜I’ll get a good last eighth of a mile in him and let him gallop out.’ Before we hit the eighth pole, obviously he saw something and was distracted. I couldn’t get his attention back until the other horse (Tomahawk Lake) came back at him again.

“It was a lot like Point Given in the Preakness last year, when he was late switching leads and he came over just because he was looking up in the grandstand.”

Does Sunday Break need an equipment change to keep him on the straight and narrow?

“He doesn’t need blinkers,” Stevens said. “When he’s got a target or if I keep him focused, he’s going to go about his business. He’s serious when you put him into a drive, but I hadn’t put him into a drive yet. That’s part of his learning process. He was waiting for my cue. He was on his own, a new race track and all, and he started playing around.”

Sunday Break, a son of Forty Niner, is trained by Neil Drysdale, who developed the enigmatic Fusaichi Pegasus into a Kentucky Derby winner two years ago. When it comes to conditioning thoroughbreds, Drysdale has been known to march to a drummer only he hears. That’s fine with Stevens.

“Neil’s had a plan with this colt and I’ve been with Neil long enough to know not to question his judgement, and I’ve been around this colt enough already to know that he’s serious,” Stevens said.

So serious, and a colt of such quality and potential, that Stevens feels he is in an enviable position for the 128th Kentucky Derby.

“I wouldn’t change places with anybody,” Stevens said, “and for that matter, with the exception of a couple years, I wouldn’t have traded places with any of the previous horses that I’ve had headed for the Kentucky Derby.”

So who are you going to believe, me or your eyes?