Saturday, May 1, 2004

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — There are certain things that, if you have been paying attention over the years you have been on this earth, you do not do.

You don’t tug on Superman’s cape.

You don’t spit in the wind.

And you don’t bet against a horse that trains on Guinness.

So my money is on the Maryland entry, Tapit, to win today’s 130th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs.

Of course, if The Cliff’s Edge (the 4-1 morning-line favorite) won, it would not surprise me. Or Smarty Jones. Or even a long shot like Friend’s Lake. It is that kind of field that will run today — wide open, though it decreased yesterday from 20 to 18 when Bob Baffert’s entry, Wimbledon (a 15-1 shot who had looked good in workouts this week) and St Averil, a 30-1 shot, were withdrawn.

There is money to be made today because there appears to be no one horse to beat, so you could make the case to put your hard-earned cash on any number of horses.

“This probably will be the best betting Derby ever,” said trainer Nick Zito, who has The Cliff’s Edge and long shot Birdstone in today’s race. “I don’t see any clear-cut favorite.”

But you’ve got to pick one, and Tapit, an 8-1 morning-line entry, seems as good as any. He has the bloodlines — he is the grandson of the 1992 Horse of the Year, A.P. Indy, and when he won the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, he ran like a horse who hates to lose.

In bars everywhere, Tapit (what else could a horse who trains on stout be named?) will be the sentimental favorite, as drinking men raise a glass to one of their own — unless their money is riding on another horse, and if it is, shame on them.

In television trucks, network boardrooms and Hollywood studios, though, they will be rooting for another horse with a good shot (a 9-2 morning-line entry): Smarty Jones. He is this year’s Funny Cide, the horse with a story behind him that will capture the hearts, minds — and wallets — of America.

Smarty Jones, winner of the Arkansas Derby and undefeated in six starts, is the horse with the tale of triumph over tragedy, coming back after a devastating accident last year when he smashed his head into a iron bar, fractured his skull and nearly drove an eye deep into his head. He is the horse with the trainer who was murdered nearly three years ago and replaced by a respected, small-time trainer named John Servis, taking his first shot on a national stage. He is the horse who will be ridden by an unheralded jockey named Stewart Elliott, riding in his first Derby — a huge gamble by the owners of a horse who is among the favorites.

“To be part of this story is just unbelievable,” Pat Chapman, who owns Smarty Jones with her husband, Roy, told reporters.

If Smarty Jones wins today, it won’t be long before you see the horse on the cover of Time and Newsweek.

But the media darling may not even finish in the money. That’s what kind of field will run today. On April10, the day Tapit won the Wood Memorial and Smarty Jones won the Arkansas Derby, The Cliff’s Edge won the Toyota Blue Grass. A week earlier, Castledale (a 15-1 morning-line pick) won the Santa Anita Derby with a time better than any of the other three horses. And a month before that, Friends Lake won the Florida Derby, beating three of the horses in today’s field: The Cliff’s Edge, Read the Footnotes and Tapit, who finished sixth that day.

Friends Lake wouldn’t be a bad winner because he has that whole Springsteen connection. His trainer, John Kimmel, grew up with the Boss’ wife, Patti Scialfa, and the rocker and trainer are good friends. If Friends Lake wins, they will go through the whole Springsteen songbook on ESPN between now and the Preakness — not that there’s anything wrong with that.

If Tapit wins, I guess we’ll be seeing a new version of that Guinness commercial with a horse-racing theme, discussing how training a horse to race in the Kentucky Derby would be “brilliant!”

It may or may not be brilliant, but for those who enjoy the nectar that comes out of a tap, it is, in its own way, inspiring.

A toast to Tapit, with The Cliff’s Edge and Friends Lake completing a rewarding trifecta.

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