One of racing's rites of spring returned today after a five-year absence: a silly man paid a lot of money to enter a bad horse in the Kentucky Derby.
Well, perhaps that is a bit harsh. Great Redeemer surely could win somewhere, although that has not happened the six times he has raced. He has never been closer than 111/2 lengths to a winner in his life and went off at 90-1 in a field of five in his last race.
And five minutes after entering Great Redeemer today, trainer Jim James quit.
"I don't blame him," said the owner Dr. J. A. Mohamed. "He just doesn't have faith."
Neither does almost anyone except Mohamed, who describes himself as a Pakistani born in Trinidad and then born again as a Christian. At least one of his motives for paying $4,000 today and $3,500 Saturday to enter his horse is publicly-and that offers a scary possibility.
Mohamed is a 47-year-old diagnostic radiologist from San Antonio who sees himself as a visionary among horsemen. In a trade-journal ad in January, he declared: "Spectacular Bid WILL NOT WIN Any of the Spring Classics . . . Not Will General Assembly, Flying Paster . . ."
The ad was a pitch for Mohamed's book, "Thoroughbreds: A Daring New Approach," and a monthly newsletter. But endorsements cited in the ad are not Triple Crown in credibility. Of all the minds in horsedom available, the three best he could find included a plastic surgeon from South Dakota and the fellow from Comfort Acres Farm.
At first glance, all of this seems harmless enough, a gentle jab at Kentucky and Derby snobbery. Classier men have stooped to less to hustle a book. And Mohamed is not the first owner who sniffed one too many mint juleps and decided his pet ought to run for the roses.
One-Eyed Tom, a horse that had never raced, let alone won, was entered in the Derby. And Roger Braugh said God told him to enter Bold Clarion in the Derby. Bold Clarion was next to last.
The Derby had made the price of folly stiffer in recent years, so Great Redeemer will be its first maiden since Fourulla in 1971. And it was not quite a vision that told Mohamed to move with Great Redeemer today.
"No," he said from San Antonio.
"I just pray a lot and read my Bible. Criticism? People don't bother me. They never bother me. God is my only witness, my only relationship I consider important."
Ironically, the worst horse in the Derby will start next to the best. Great Redeemer, who has lost all six races by a total of 841/2 lengths and whose father, Holy Land, slipped and failed to finish the'70 Derby, drew the No. 2 post position today; Spectacular Bid drew No. 3.
Which means Mohamed's promise of Bid's defeat would come true if Great Redeemer blunders on or near the start. Not intentionally, for no one smells anything sinister, but merely the sort of racing accident that could hamper a naturally slow-breaking horse.
"Some kind of nut," I guess," Bid's blunt-talking trainer, Bud Delp, said. "The man put up his money, so he's entitled, I guess. But as soon as the gate's open, he's last, isn't he? Oh, he does have a little speed?"
Derby officials said trainer James called 10 minutes before deadline this morning with the entry ant that Mohamed called five minutes later to say James had quit and that he would be the trainer.
If Mohamed is licensed elsewhere, as he said, getting a Kentucky permit will be no problem. But Bid's owners were openly rooting that some way would be found to keep Great Redeemer out of the Derby.
"I'm worried about the break," owner Harry Meyerhoff said immediately after the draw for post position.
So Richard DePass woke up this morning with a severe cold-and a Derby mount.
"My jock says he'll ride anything," agent Don (Hee Haw) Alvey said. "Richard never seen him (Mohamed) and neither have I. If he came up and kicked me, I wouldn't know him. I called Richard at the motel, got him up to tell him. He said, 'Well, good,' and hung up."
If Great Redeemer, purchased for about $2,100, went off at 90-1 in Tuesday's Derby Trial (finishing third), the Churchill Downs tote board will need to be retooled to reflect his Derby odds.
Jimmy The Greek is offering 300-1.
For his investment, Mohamed is hoping of fourth place, to somehow beat six other horses and win $12,500. He could have put that $7,500 on Bid's nose and had a better chance at a better return.
Late today, Mohamed was unable to get plane reservations closer to here than Atlanta. And his horse, trainerless, was alone 70 miles down the road at Keeneland Race Course. All of racing prays Great Redeemer falls to his left when the horses break Saturday.
For months, Delp has been bragging that only an "act of God" could cause Bid to lose the Derby. Very early this morning, he said: "There's only one way to win a Derby. There's 999 ways to lose it." Several hours later, he saw a 1,000th way. CAPTION: Picture, Kentucky Derby nominee Golden Act is sponged down by groom Mark Oesch after morning workout at Churchill Downs. Golden Act drew first pole position for Saturdays's classic. AP