- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 13, 2003

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — J. Paul Reddam just wanted good seats. Now he’s in the owner’s box.

Reddam bought a one-third interest in Ten Most Wanted just to have a stake in tomorrow’s Kentucky Derby. Unless his colt pulls an upset and wins, a scalper would have been cheaper.

“They’re probably the most expensive Derby seats in history,” Reddam said. “I got caught up in the fever.”

Derby fever turns sensible businessmen into speculators, wise guys into fools and horsemen into hayseeds. They will chase that rose-draped blanket for a lifetime and run anything with four legs.

“It is the dream of anyone involved in racing to have a horse that ran in the Kentucky Derby,” Churchill Downs president Tom Meeker said, “and the ultimate dream is to win the Kentucky Derby.”

But for every can’t-miss favorite that dominates his rivals, there is a long shot whose entry defies common sense. These owners are not just hoping for a lucky break. They need divine assistance to make it to the winner’s circle.

Donerail, a 91-1 underdog, was ridden through the streets to the track before his victory in the 1913 Derby. Ever since, the Derby has had a few owners willing to abandon reason and enter a long shot.

Even former Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke wasn’t immune. Cooke, who also owned a Kentucky breeding farm and a California stable, always said winning the Derby would be just as sweet as winning a Super Bowl championship. Cooke won three Lombardi Trophies but never the Derby. His Flying Continental, at 84-1, finished 12th behind winner Sunday Silence in 1989. Flying Continental was so knocked out from the race that he didn’t run again for nearly six months.

“Sometimes in their lives — more often than people know — they think their horses have no chance and win, so they know it happens,” retired Pimlico oddsmaker Clem Florio said. “Maybe they get lucky or others go off form. Once you’ve ever tasted it, you have to take a shot.”

A shot in the dark, maybe. Derby history is littered with bad horses that had no chance and finished accordingly:

Great Redeemer was winless and so bad that even his trainer refused to enter him in the 1979 Derby. The owner was forced to take over as trainer. Great Redeemer lost by 47 lengths, 25 behind the next-to-last finisher. He was so far behind that a photographer ran across the track to the winner’s circle, forgetting that Great Redeemer was still running. The race also included King Celebrity (fourth) at 112-1 and Shamgo (eighth) at 102-1. The colt ended up racing for $1,500 at Mountaineer Park.

The 1971 Derby had two doozies. Royal Leverage was more than 200-1 in a modest claiming race two months earlier before finishing 12th in the Derby. Forulla was 19th after racing just four times on the turf and being sick the week of the race. He never ran again.

Special Honor finished last in 1978 at a whopping 177-1. Ironically, he won the Ohio Derby a few weeks later at 100-1.

Affirmed and Alydar were such heavy favorites in 1978 that five others were rated 96-1 or worse. Fittingly, they finished in the last five places. Raymond Earl was 10th at 117-1 but later won the Super Bowl Handicap for his new owner — Redskins quarterback Billy Kilmer.

And yet … long shots occasionally win. War Emblem pulled a 20-1 shocker just last year. Charismatic was 31-1 in 1999, and Thunder Gulch was 25-1 in 1995.

Some winners were forced into the race over the objections of their trainers. LeRoy Jolley wouldn’t even saddle Genuine Risk (13-1) in 1980 until he was forced to by the owners; he did, however, willingly enter the winner’s circle minutes later. Boo Gentry was so mad because the owners ordered him to enter Proud Clarion (30-1) in 1967 that he kicked a metal bucket over the barn.

“It would have been a 20-yard field goal,” former Churchill publicist Kelso Sturgeon said.

But not every long shot is a joke. Pimlico general manager Chick Lang was sure the accented voice on the phone trying to enter the 1971 Preakness Stakes belonged to one of his buddies playing a prank. The caller even asked Lang to enter his horse in the Derby.

Lang wrote the name on the back of a cocktail napkin and later entered the colt, though he couldn’t find him listed in any U.S. sales book. Something told Lang to enter him despite the chance it was a joke.

The colt was Canonero II, which won the Derby and Preakness after taking four races in Venezuela.

“In a plain brown wrapper, Canonero II won the Derby,” famed columnist Red Smith wrote of the colt with brown silks.

But sometimes the runner really is a joke of sorts. Entered in the 1976 Derby by a group of local businessmen, Amano was an acronym for “all men are number one.” He actually finished No.4 at 55-1.

Sometimes, however, sanity prevails. One Eyed Tom was nearly entered in the 1972 Derby even though he had never raced and was trained on a Nevada farm. He failed in five attempts to get a requisite starting gate card a few days before the race — bolting, walking and bouncing out of the gate during morning sessions. Big Al’s Express was withdrawn after badly losing the 1988 Derby Trial the previous week despite the owner’s boast that his long shot would win the Derby.

It costs about $50,000 in fees and expenses to enter the Derby, but most owners consider it money well spent regardless of the outcome.

Bob Lewis entered Scrimshaw (15-1) in tomorrow’s running, but the two-time Derby-winning owner isn’t deterred by long odds. He also finished 16th with Serena’s Song in 1995 when the filly champion tired after leading the first mile. Lewis conceded that he had entered Serena’s Song over the objections of trainer D. Wayne Lukas because the roses remained alluring even after two victories.

“Once you taste victory, it sucks you in,” Lewis said. “And isn’t it ridiculous to say it could happen a third time?”

Indeed, the roar of the crowd when horses enter “Heartbreak Lane” is among sports’ greatest thrills.

“I have talked to people who had no chance at all,” Lang said. “If everyone fell down in the race, their horse would fall down, too, but they still ran their horse in the Kentucky Derby. They know they have no chance but want to go to all the parties. It’s the little guy who gets to rub elbows with the Vanderbilts and Whitneys.

“Why not take a shot? It may not come again. They know deep down it costs a ton of money, but they look up the stretch and [their] horse is [losing] and still say, ‘Wasn’t this great? We had a ball.’”

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