In the view of trainers, good horses don't lose races because somebody else runs faster. They lose because of human error, bad luck or various acts of God.
Thus trainers invariably recite a familiar litany of excuses after one of their charges has suffered a defeat. The jockey moved too soon. The jockey moved too late. The track was too deep. The track was too hard.
Sometimes the alibis are highly creative. In recent Kentucky Derbies, for example, horses have lost because they knocked teeth loose in the starting gate, jumped over a puddle, were hit by a flying beer can or were upset by the band's rendition of "My Old Kentucky Home."
For horse players, such excuses are befuddling. Usually they serve only as distractions from the hard evidence of the past performances. But once in a while even the far-fetched alibis prove to be legitimate. (The horse who supposedly lost the Derby because he jumped a puddle did come back to win the Preakness.)
An excuse is a central issue in today's $167,860 Selima Stakes at Laurel, a race that will probably determine the country's champion 2-year-old filly.
Until last week, Heavenly Cause looked like the clear favorite to win that title. The Maryland-bred does not have a dazzling overall record, but she did defeat all of New York's best juvenile fillies in the Frizette Stakes at Belmont. After that victory, she was a 1-to-5 favorite to win the Gardenia Stakes at the Meadowlands.
Heavenly Cause looked like a sure winner, too, when she surged to a three-length lead entering the stretch Oct. 23. But suddenly she stopped accelerating and a lightly regarded rival, Carolina Command, passed her in the stretch and won going away.
Woody Stephens, the astute trainer of Heavenly Cause, contemplated this upset and then offered an explanation. "She opened up three lengths like the rest of the horses were standing still, but something may have spooked her -- maybe the lights. She pulled herself up and the other filly went by."
Distraction by lights is a novel reason for losing a race, but in this case it may not be implausible. Nothing in Heavenly Cause's record suggests that she is the type of filly to collapse in the stretch. The time of the Gardenia suggests that she did not put in her normal performance at the Meadowlands. She did not lose because Carolina Command ran so fast.
If the Meadowlands race can be dismissed, Heavenly Cause is the horse to beat today. If that race was any indication, then the Selima is wide open.
Four challengers are facing Heavenly Cause and Carolina Command, and two of them are solid contenders. Rainbow Connection has won her last four starts in Canada, all by comfortable margins, though she may not be quite so formidable as her record indicates. Her victories all come at the expense of other Canadian-bred fillies, who are usually a weak lot. Rainbow Connection's winning times have been respectable but hardly awesome.
Expressive Dance lost by five lengths to Heavenly Cause in New York, but ran a strong second against tough competition in Kentucky two weeks ago.She has an outside chance to give a sweep of Laurel's big 2-year-old races to Bert and Diana Firestone, who won last week's Laurel Futurity with Cure The Blues.
The other entrants are Two Roses and Ancient Rule, whose presence in the race reflects the unquenchable optimism of their owners and trainers. For them to have a chance, the favorites would need excuses of catastrophic proportions.