With a half-mile to go, Proud Appeal led the Kentucky Derby, which is a terrible thing to do to a horse. Students of history looked for the telltale signs of smoke curling from the wreckage, for the unforgettable Bombay Duck taught us that only a good horse can carry a lead that last half-mile.As we shall see in a minute, Proud Appeal's inevitable flameout gave a whole bunch of riders the scary thought they might win this thing.

"These are bad 3-year-olds," said Johnny Campo, the trainer of the winner, Pleasant Colony. He didn't really mean it, he said later, or maybe he did; he would leave it to the students to figure out. Certainly the betting favorite today, Proud Appeal, did nothing to disprove Campo's desecration of these 21 noble steeds that moved 139,195 patrons to wager $4.5 million.

Only a half-mile from immortality, Proud Appeal did the same thing Bombay Duck did in '75 when he flew the first six furlongs in 1:10 3/5. Proud Appeal fluffed up the pillows and lay down for a nap. It is two hours after the race as these words are computerized, and compassionate horse people want to send out a search party with lanterns and ropes. Fact is, Proud Appeal finished 18th, causing jockey Jeff Fell to say, "He didn't respond at all. It was kinda surprising."

It is kinda disappointing to hear Fell describe the long limp home in such mundane terms. No one who heard will ever forget jockey Ron Aristone saying Bombay Duck waddled home dead last because, at the half-mile pole, someone hit the horse in the snout with a beer can. This is a Derby record for imaginative excuses that is unassailable.

"My colt didn't seem to run during any part of it," Fell said. As Proud Appeal put it in park at the half-mile pole, here came Television Studio from the back of the pack. By now, of course, another one-time glamor horse, Cure the Blues, was a sad case carrying Bill Shoemaker very slowly. "He wasn't running very good," Shoe said. And Top Avenger, after setting a record pace the first half-mile, disappeared.

They weren't alone in their problems. Rueben Hernandez on Tap Shoes spoke of a gray horse "that ran like a drunk, he weaved so much." Kevin Wirth, who rode the gray horse Mythical Ruler, said his colt was knocked off balance by a clumsy intruder, Noble Nashua, who shoved his way into a hole that wasn't there.

So jockey David Whited on Television Studio moved out from behind the stumbling stampeders, and as he passed the half-mile pole and came to the head of the stretch with a quarter-mile to go, Whited had a sudden thought.

"I thought, 'My God, I'm gonna win,'" he said. "I about hyperventilated."

By then Whited was running third on a horse so unappreciated the track handicapper assigned him to the "field" for betting. "I had been dead last once and then went from 12th or 13th to fifth in a quarter-mile. And I still had a lot of horse left. He was still full of run. I just didn't know how empty the horses ahead of us were."

Because the early pace had been so fast, now everyone was going in reverse just as fast. Here Pleasant Colony had the race won, as it turned out, but Whited was not alone in his fleeting fantasy that victory was there for the taking. Sandy Hawley, up on Partez, another of the nine field horses, had moved from midstampede to second place.

"When we galloped around the turn, I thought he was the winner," Hawley said, referring to Partez' big move around the wreckage up front.

At the sixteenth-pole, five seconds from the finish, Hawley made a riding mistake. He stood up in the stirrups. He had mistaken the sixteenth pole for the finish-line pole.

"There are two finish wires there, aren't there?" he said.

No.

"Well, I know it didn't cost us second money."

He knows that because he felt a whoosh of wind as Woodchopper passed him in the stretch.

Wood-who? A 34-1 longshot, Woodchopper was 19th when Proud Appeal ran the first six furlongs so quickly.

"We were last out of the gate," said jockey Eddie Delahoussaye, replaying a race that he too thought he was going to win. "At the 5/8th pole, we started moving gradually. And at the half-mile pole, we were moving good."

Then down the quarter-mile homestretch they came, the Heartbreak Road of Churchill Downs that is that highway to dreams for the good horses. In the 20 years before this, only three horses were fast enough and strong enough to carry a lead the last half-mile, carrying it down that long homestretch, carrying it farther than these veritable babies ever had been asked to run.

Only three horses: Kauai King, Riva Ridge and Bold Forbes.

By now Proud Appeal was sound asleep near the starting gate.

And Delahoussaye, on Woodchopper, saw his chance to win.

A hole on the inside.

With a quarter-mile to go, Delahoussaye was running fifth but he saw a tiny hole open. By moving through it, he would be third and running full-bore with Pleasant Colony.

"But as soon as I started to split the hole, it closed, and I had to steady my horse," Delahoussaye said. "It took me two or three strides to get him back to full speed."

With a sixteenth of a mile to go, Woodchopper suddenly broke free of the staggering pretenders in front of him. Even Pleasant Colony was struggling, and Delahoussaye, as Whited did, had a thrilling thought.

"In my mind, for a second, yes, I thought I was going to win," he said. "But I could see that wire coming up so fast."

Proud Appeal, for one, saw it coming up slowly.