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Next Stop, Churchill Downs
Steven Crist
April 20, 1998
Favorites encountered detours and potholes aplenty in the last round of Derby preps
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April 20, 1998

Next Stop, Churchill Downs

Favorites encountered detours and potholes aplenty in the last round of Derby preps

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Louisville Sluggers
Despite a loss in the Arkansas Derby, Favorite Trick looks to our Kentucky Derby handicapper like the horse to beat.

Favorite Trick


Indian Charlie


Halory Hunter


Lil's Lad-Comic Strip


Event of the Year


Real Quiet


Cape Town


Victory Gallop




Hanuman Highway




Field (anyone else)


Given the opportunity to send a top 3-year-old to the Kentucky Derby, horse owners typically exercise about as much restraint as a hungry Doberman with an unguarded pork chop. This year, though, the final trio of major Derby preps, all run last Saturday, left the owners of the three heavy favorites pausing before calling their travel agents.

Favorite Trick, last season's Horse of the Year and unbeaten in nine previous starts, was the 2-5 favorite to trounce a spotty field of nine in the $500,000 Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park. Instead, he tired late to finish third after a surprising show of early speed. Had the scrappy son of short-winded Phone Trick finally revealed the limitations to his endurance that pedigree snobs had been predicting since last summer?

Lil's Lad, the star of the Florida winter racing season, was 2-5 to wire a paceless field of five in the $700,000 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland Race Course, but he surrendered an easy lead turning for home to run second to a horse he had beaten four times in a row. Was the brilliant front-runner saying no m�s by drifting out and tiring late for the second consecutive race?

Coronado's Quest, a skittish head case in most of his previous races, was 11-10 to win Aqueduct's $500,000 Wood Memorial and just about the same price to barrel through the paddock tunnel, assault the lead pony and dump his rider. He comported himself perfectly while leading throughout en route to a 2�-length victory. But was one afternoon of good behavior on his home turf assurance enough that he would not revert to his rogue-elephant antics if he were placed amid the unsettling crowds and clamor of Derby Day?

By Sunday morning, the questions lingered but travel plans were taking shape. Coronado's Quest will stay at home on the first Saturday in May, while Favorite Trick and Lil's Lad will contest what is shaping up to be a fascinating Derby with an overflowing and eccentric cast. Along with last weekend's two beaten favorites seeking redemption, the 124th Kentucky Derby will feature the first pair of undefeated entrants in 35 years and the first starter owned by an NBA coach.

The easiest decision following last weekend's preps was to head for Churchill Downs with Favorite Trick, whose defeat in Arkansas was as impressive as some of his facile juvenile romps. Making just his second start of the year following a four-month layoff and stretching out from seven to nine furlongs, Favorite Trick was more than eligible to come up short in the stretch. A strong finisher who usually relaxes in the early going, he instead broke like a bullet and was drawn into a duel with, a hopeless long shot through sprinter's fractions of 22.58, 46.08 and 1:10.97.

Favorite Trick was a length clear after a mile, but winning that battle cost him the race, and Victory Gallop and Hanuman Highway came flying late to nail him by a pair of heads at the wire, stopping the timer in a tepid 1:49.86 for the mile and an eighth. There's no guarantee Favorite Trick will enjoy being required to run an extra furlong on Derby Day, but he deserves the chance to prove that he was the victim of a brutal pace rather than the product of doomed genetics.

"We're going to proceed," trainer Bill Mott said after sleeping on the defeat. "There's a legitimate excuse why he didn't win."

The two who finished in front of him didn't run terribly fast but should certainly not be troubled by the mile-and-a-quarter Kentucky Derby distance. Victory Gallop, a Canadian-bred son of Crypto-clearance, has come back from a long winter layoff to win both his starts as a 3-year-old. Hanuman Highway, an Irish gelding who began his career at Britain's obscure Wolverhampton racecourse, had some traffic trouble closing for second and is getting better with each start.

In the Blue Grass, Lil's Lad had none of Favorite Trick's excuses. Making his fifth start of the year around two turns, he strolled to an early 3�-length advantage through mild splits of 23.61 and 47.04 over a quicker surface than Oaklawn's. Halory Hunter, a chronic laggard, stayed closer than usual this time, then shot through a favorable inside path as Lil's Lad drifted out while turning for home. Halory Hunter widened his lead to 2� lengths at the wire, completing the 1? miles in a solid 1:47.98.

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