What’s in a name? The Derby winner!

Apr 27, 2004 6:52 AM

Saturday is May 1, and being the first Saturday in May it also is Kentucky Derby Day.

The race, which started in 1875 and gained its place in the foremost ranks of American sporting events in the early 1920s under the promotional genius of Col. Matt Winn, is the best-known horserace in America.

Everyone, from nude Vegas showgirls to nuclear scientists, including nude showgirls who are nuclear scientists, knows this race. And many of them pick the winner on the strength of a name only, knowing nothing more.

That was the case last year when a natural named Funny Cide exploded into view, helped by a main owner who liked to talk, his old schoolbuddy partners who liked the ride, and a battered old school bus in which they took it to wherever Funny Cide raced. The fact that they all were from a little town in northern New York called Sackets Harbor didn’t hurt the story,

Funny Cide won the Derby, first leg of the Triple Crown, and won the second, the Preakness at Pimlico in Baltimore. He sputtered in the final leg, the Belmont Stakes, but remained a public favorite — and still is.

Now, lo and behold, and lucky for thoroughbred racing, there is another Funny Cide in the wings. Since nothing has beaten him yet in six starts, he will be one of the favorites Saturday and could go all the way in the mile and a quarter test.

Like Funny Cide, he will pick up a huge following around the country, in office pools and country club parties and at back porch barbecues, because of his name. It is Smarty Jones.

A horse with a name like that is not supposed to win the Derby.

You think a classic race should be won by a horse with a classic name, like the 2002 winner, War Emblem, or the 2001 winner, Monarchos, or other recent winners like Charismatic and Silver Charm.

But here is humble Smarty Jones, out of northeast Philadelphia, with both a trainer and jockey who have been around for years, plugging it out and winning races, but far from the Kentucky Derby. This will be the first trip for either to Louisville as participants.

Smarty Jones and Funny Cide are not the only Kentucky Derby luminaries with names more appropriate for public popularity than for immortality.

As recently as 1994, Go For Gin won the Run for the Roses, and two years before that a horse named Lil E. Tee was the winner. Tim Tam won in 1958, and Swaps in 1955. Whiskery won back in 1927, and Joe Cotton in 1885.

But when you think of horses that win the sport’s greatest race, you think of great names, Like Exterminator, which won in 1918, or Cavalcade in 1934, or Bold Venture in 1936 and the great War Admiral the next year. Whirlaway was an appropriate name for a Derby winner, which he was in 1941, and Citation in 1948, and Iron Liege in 1957, and Majestic Prince in 1969. Secretariat, perhaps the greatest of them all, carried a name befitting his stature, and so did Spectacular Bid and the gallant filly Winning Colors and, more recently, Strike the Gold.

But this year, come Saturday, the hearts and minds of tens of thousands will be centered on Smarty Jones and his humble beginnings and unbeaten record.

I have personal favorites in the race ”” trainers Michael Dickinson, Richard Mandella and Nick Zito, three class acts with three classy horses, Tapit, Action This Day and The Cliff’s Edge, respectively ”” and I will be rooting for them in this classic race that has a field twice as big as it should have.

With as many as 20 horses facing the starter, luck — particularly bad luck ”” can play even more of a role than it should. You can get buried and blocked in a field this big, even with the best horse, or perhaps especially with the best horse, so the best horse does not always win the Derby. That’s another story. For now, go cheer for Smarty Jones.