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Apr 08, 2005

RACING TO THE DERBY

By: JOHN PIESEN


Last time out in this space, I broke the story that the Breeders' Cup would

 deep-six Monmouth Park if the various politicos in Jersey didn't get their act together.

Much to my surprise, the warring Jersey politicians did make up, and the

Breeders' Cup people decided they would stick with Monmouth for the 2007 Cup.

It's always nice to get a happy ending.

Last week, I broke the story that Ghostzapper was sick, and would miss

the Oaklawn Handicap, which was to be the reigning Horse of the Year's season debut.

I hated to see that happen because, as I currently based at Oaklawn Park, it

would have been a kick to see the champ in action live and in color, and to

have trainer Frankel hang out in my Oaklawn office with the TV clicker.

In Ghostzapper's absence, a horse named Grand Reward will take an awful lot

of catching. More about that Friday.

Then, over the weekend, I broke another story, the story of Rockport Harbor

and his blood clot. No need to go into detail about the story now. Surely, you

saw the story in your local paper, because AP picked up my piece, and the

 piece ran in 2,000 or so newspapers, and most racing publications.

I get asked 20 times day if Rockport Harbor will make the Arkansas Derby.

 This makes sense because who knows Rockport Harbor better than this

 correspondent? I spend every morning at the barn, feeding Rocky

 peppermints, and chatting it up with Rocky's trainer, assistant trainer,

 hot walker, groom, and whatever groupies are hanging around.

My answer to the Arkansas Derby question? I honestly don't know. I can

only say it's 50-50 at best that he makes the race. If there is any way

 that trainer Servis can run Rocky in the Derby without hurting the

horse, he'll do it. We'll just have to wait and see.

To give you an idea of Rockport Harbor's popularity, every hotel room

 within 20 miles of Hot Springs is booked. A crowd of 70,000 is expected.

 And, if Rocky goes, despite everything that has gone wrong with him this

 year, he'll be favored in an outstanding field that will include Afleet Alex,

Greater Good and Wild Desert.

Speaking of Wild Desert, here's something you need to know...

Wild Desert, who was a fast-closing second in the Lane's End, is owned

by Dan Borislow, a well-heeled fellow from the Philadelphia suburbs.

Borislow this morning challenged the owners of Rockport Harbor and

 Afleet, who are also from the Philadelphia area, a winner-take-all bet.

Borislow suggested that the owners of the three horses each put up $50,000,

with the winner being the owner of the horse who finishes ahead of the other two.

And Borislow, in a sporting gesture, said if he wins the bet, he will donate

 his winnings to charity.

We will await replies from the owners of Rockport Harbor and Afleet Alex.

It's a Philly kind of thing...like Villano getting whistled for traveling in the

 last minute against North Carolina. Otherwise, that could have been

Villanova vs. Illinois on Monday evening.

Back to Wild Desert.

The rider of Wild Desert, who, by the way, is a very serious racehorse, will

 be Patrick Valenzuela, arguably the most controversial jockey in the racing biz.

Valenzuela also will be in Hot Springs this Saturday to ride Second of June

 in the Oaklawn Handicap, and Dream of Summer in the Apple Blossom.

 Since Ghostzapper and Azeri will not be competing, both of Patrick's

horses are major players.

Hard to believe, but this is the silver anniversary of the last meaningful

conversation I had with Patrick Valenzuela.

Correct, the year was 1980. I was a hot-to-trot racing writer for the

New York Post. PVal was an up-and-coming whippersnapper out of California.

The venue was Churchill Downs. The date was the first Saturday of May

 (May 3). It was the first of 12 Derbies I would cover for the Post.

During Derby week, I became enamored of a 3-year-old named Bold 'n Ruling, who

 was coming off a closing -- but distant -- third in the Santa Anita Derby.

On Thursday morning, after the draw, per instructions I telephoned my

 picks into my boss, Post sports editor Greg Gallo.
My picks:

1. Bold 'n Ruling
2. Genuine Risk
3. Jaklin Klugman (named for the comic)

"Piesen, are you nuts," Gallo told me. "I pay all the money to send you to

the Derby, and you give me a 50-1 shot!

"Greg," I replied. "Sorry, that's my pick. Live with it."

Back then, New York City OTB conducted a separate betting pool on the

 Derby, and Bold 'n Ruling, who would go off 68-1 on-track, was a mere 22-1 at OTB.

Hey, I do have a following, I reasoned. Not bad.

As for the race...

Going to the second turn, Valenzuela asked Bold 'n Ruling, and the horse

made this incredible charge along the rail to make the lead.

My first Kentucky Derby. I give out a 68-1 shot to a million readers, and he's in

front on the turn!

But then reality stepped in. Bold n' Ruling shortened stride through the stretch, and

 finished sixth, beaten six lengths.
The winner?

Genuine Risk at $28.60.

The show horse?

Jaklin Klugman.

Solemnly, I walked back to the jocks' room, and introduced myself to Valenzuela, who

 otherwise was ignored by the media.
"I thought you had a shot on the turn," I said.

"Shot? I was a cinch," PVal said. "I hadn't asked my horse to run when we

made the lead. I had a ton of horse!"

"So what happened?"

"You really want to know," PVal said.

"Yes."

"The horse broke down. He ran the last quarter-mile on three legs."

Sure enough, I raced back to the press box, and found the chart. The chart

 said Bold 'n Ruling pulled up lame.

That was to be the last race for Bold 'n Ruling, and it was the last time I would go

 public with a 68-1 shot (22-1 at OTB).

I followed PVal's career closely after that, and, nine years later, I was

Sunday Silence's biggest East Coast media booster in those classic duels with Easy Goer.

That was Patrick Valenzuela on Sunday Silence.

I really don't know much, other than what I read, about Valenzuela's ensuing

 personal problems that have short-circuited his career. I do know that my

West Coast colleagues tell me that he is the best rider in California, and has been for years.

Now, I'll get to see for myself the next two weeks at Oaklawn. He's got three top

 horses coming up in three major races. It will be interesting.

On Friday in this space, I'll turn my attention to the Wood Memorial and

 Santa Anita Derby, as the Derby Trail gets hotter by the day.

Stay tuned.



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