Any handicapper who has regularly disgraced himself in the Kentucky Derby, who failed to pick Secretariat, Seattle Slew or Affirmed, ought to feel a slight sense of trepidation as the first Saturday in May approaches.
He should certainly feel hesitant about his chances of analyzing a wideopen, 20-horse Derby that could be decided by racing luck as much as the ability of the horses.
He should show proper restraint about expressing his opinion unless, of course, all handicapping logic pointed clearly and incontrovertibly to one horse.
And that is the situation on Saturday. Pleasant Colony is going to win the 107th Kentucky Derby. The case for him is overwhelming. And there are, at the same time, formidable arguments against all his principal rivals.
Ordinarily, I consider the old handicapping adage that "pace makes the race" to be a bunch of malarkey. The notion that intense competition for the early lead will set up a race for a stretch-runner is simplistic and, as often as not, wrong, except in the most extreme cases.
But this Derby may be that extreme case. Of the four best horses in the field, three are speedsters who have never done anything in their careers but go out and fight for the early lead -- Proud Appeal, Cure the Blues and Bold Ego -- and they are sure to hurt each other's chances.
Proud Appeal will be the favorite Saturday, and he should be, in view of his five-for-five record this year. But he has already had a tough campaign, and his slow, unimpressive victory in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland last week suggests either that he is tailing off or that he does not want to run much farther than a mile. Or both.
Cure the Blues, too, comes into the Derby off an umimpressive performances, but his loss in the Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct was almost too bad to be true. Trainer LeRoy Jolley has demonstrated over the years that he is a master at getting a horse to give his optimal performance on the first Saturday in May. If Cure the Blues were entered in a field with relatively little speed, or if he were going a distance less than a mile and a quarter, he might be the horse to beat. But even if he is the most gifted horse of his generation (as I still suspect), he is facing an unsuperable challenge.
Until two weeks ago, no one could have guessed that Pleasant Colony would emerge as one of the top contenders in the Triple Crown series. He had shown some promise as a 2-year-old and some promise in Florida this winter. But he was transformed when owner Thomas Mellon Evans took the colt away from his undistinguished trainer, P. O'Donnell Lee, and sent him to the care of Johnny Campo in New York.
Whether Campo's training or the colt's natural development was responsible, Pleasant Colony's performance in the Wood Memorial Stakes was a superb one. He blew past the exhausted Cure the Blues with a powerful move on the turn, and was coasting through the stretch on the way to a three-length victory.His time of 1:49 3/5 for the 1 1/8 sensational.
Pleasant Colony is the only one of the 20 horses entered in the Derby who has a powerful stretch kick and is an absolute certainly to like the 1 1/4-mile distance. He will have to work his way through some heavy traffic Saturday, but he is fortunate to have a jockey, Jorge Velasquez, who is a master at keeping a horse out of trouble. If Plesant Colony loses, it won't be Velasquez's fault. You can blame his defeat on a certain handicapper who gave him the kiss of death.