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May 12, 2006

THRU THE BINOCULARS

By: JOHN PIESEN


What a difference two minutes and change make.

 

Last week at this time virtually every observer of the racing scene, this reporter included, looked at the Kentucky Derby the same way: namely that it was the most wide-open Derby in memory, boasting the deepest field in years, and it was near-impossible to pinpoint the favorite much less the winner.

 

After all, there were no less than 23 horses (counting the three exclusions) running for the Roses, and hardly a throwout in the bunch.

 

Then they went and ran the race.  And now we are looking at a seven-horse field for the Preakness, with a 2-5 favorite, and four of the seven listed with no rider.

 

Not that I make Barbaro the mortal lock most folks do. Not when we're looking at a class/speed horse loose on the lead.

 

That brings us to my mea culpa.

 

I've been a Barbaro guy for months, and a Mike Matz guy for years, ever since back in the late '90s, I interviewed Matz for Daily Racing Form. The piece was pegged on Matz's transition from the horse show world to horse racing, focusing on his Olympics' exploits.

 

At no time during the interview did Matz bring up his plane-crash heroics. In fact, I never found out about it until, like everyone else, I read Andy Beyer's page one piece in the Form a couple of months back.

 

When I mentioned that to Matz during a congratulatory phone call following the Florida Derby, he brushed off the episode.

 

"No big deal," he said.

 

Speaking of the Florida Derby, I was not at all impressed by Barbaro's race that day. I thought he was absolutely life and death to beat the New York-bred Sharp Humor.

 

Now, if someone had told you that Sharp Humor would finish 19th at 30-1 in the Kentucky Derby, what chance would you have given Barbaro?

 

Of course, the X factor was jockey Prado.

 

I have been saying for months (years?) in this space that Prado was the best rider on the planet.

 

In fact, on Derby Day, one of my top plays was Joint Effort, mostly because of Prado. With Prado contributing his usual flawless ride, Joint Effort aired at $15.80 - one of four double-digit winners I gave out on my phone service last weekend, including Hello Liberty at $21.20 in the Nassau County at Belmont Park.

 

Nothing against John McKee, who may be a top rider one day, but Prado vs. McKee is a mismatch of epic proportions. That said, Lawyer Ron, who was riding a six-race winning streak, and who was 7-for-7 on dirt, because of the jockeys still would have to be five lengths better than Barbaro.

 

And, considering the events of the 48 hours leading up to the Derby, that was about as likely as Rupert Murdoch throwing a fund-raiser for Hillary.

 

Consider the 11th-hour developments surrounding Lawyer Ron:

 

  1. On Thursday, it was announced that Lawyer Ron was sold for $6 million. If the owners had any confidence at all about his chances in the Derby, they would have waited to Monday. After all, Lawyer Ron, as a Kentucky Derby winner, would have been worth $20 million.
  2. Lawyer Ron drew post 17. He didn't exactly draw post 17. Trainer Holthus picked that post while posts one and three were still available. Now, trainer Holthus has forgotten more than I ever knew about horse racing, but the fact remains that, in the 132-year history of the Kentucky Derby, post one has produced 12 winners, and post 17 has produced none.

 

  1. From the getgo, Lawyer Ron was absolutely dead on the board. I wrote in this space last week that they made the wrong morning-line favorite (Brother Derek), and that Lawyer Ron would go favored. For what it's worth, I was right about Brother Derek, but dead wrong on Lawyer Ron. Lawyer Ron was never less than 8-1 in the betting, and went off as the 10-1 sixth choice.

 

  1. And, talk about a bad omen. O.J. Simpson, who somehow was allowed on the Churchill backstretch, said he liked Lawyer Ron. And this was his quote:
    "I love lawyers, man. I'm betting any lawyers in the race, and there's a Lawyer Ron in the race. If there was a Lawyer Johnnie, I'd bet my house on it." The guy (allegedly) murders two people, and finds it funny.

 

The other proverbial shoe dropped yesterday.

 

X-rays disclosed a filling in Lawyer Ron's ankle, and he was declared from the Preakness, with his immediate future in doubt.

 

Talk about a snake bit horse.

 

Another snake bit horse was Sweetnorthernsaint.

 

First of all, you'll recall that a week before the Derby, jockey Desormeaux overslept, and missed Sweetnorthernsant's crucial final Derby work.

 

Then I learned yesterday that at 5:30 on Friday morning, long before the media crush appeared, Sweetnorthernsaint, with several pair of watchful eyes looking on, was walked on the gravel outside his barn.

 

Noting that this was unprecedented, a bystander asked trainer Trombetta: "Isn't it unusual to take a horse out of his normal morning routine like this?"

 

Trombetta answered in generalities.

 

Then, in the Derby itself, no horse had a worse trip than Sweetnorthernsaint. He was trapped down on the dead rail, had to check twice before the first turn, and, after making a long, sustained inside move to reach contention, he was stopped at the quarter-pole by a lugging-in Showing Up, who just happened to be flying the same silks as Barbaro.

 

Other than that, the most curious development of the entire Derby scenario involved Sweetnorthernsaint.

 

All Derby day, Sweetnorthernsaint was listed as the 7-1 second choice behind Barbaro, the 6-1 favorite. Then, suddenly, in the last two flashes, Sweetnorthernsaint was bet down to 5-1 favorite.

 

How could this happen? How many millions could come in at the last flash to drop a horse two points like that? And where did the money come from? And from whom?

 

I have no idea, and, apparently, neither does anyone else. This was the main topic of discussion at Churchill the day after, and no one had the answer.

 

Strange.

 

Very strange.

 

The easiest thing for trainer Trombetta to do in the wake of the Derby is to change riders for the Preakness.

 

Unfortunately, Prado is not available.

 

Meanwhile, John Daly was available on 60 Minutes Sunday night to hawk his book in which he claims, among other things, to have lost $50 million in casinos.

 

Now there are plenty of reasons to like John Daly, and plenty of reasons to dislike him.

 

Here's one reason to like him -

 

This was at a redneck bar across the street from Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., last spring.

 

A fellow in uniform approached Daly, and laid a hard-luck story on him. While on duty in Iraq, he was wounded, his wife back home in Arkansas left him, and he didn't have two nickels to rub together.

 

Daly thereupon reached into his billfold, and gave the soldier a stack of bills.

 

"Thank you," the soldier replied.

 

The soldier's take?

 

Five grand!



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