Perhaps the cool passage of time will reveal the 20 horses in the Kentucky Derby to be noble steeds all, and perhaps rocks will talk and elephants fly, but until then we should remember the elegant phrasing of Johnny Campo, the trainer who said of last year's Derby field, "Cows, pigs and garbage, dat's what dese t'ings is."
Even allowing for the Churchillian hyperbole and Campo's antipathy to any horse whose owner isn't smart enough to hire him, the trainer was off the mark only in the timing of his accolades. It is this year's Derby that is full of dese t'ings that can't run except at feeding time.
They've made a movie about this Derby: "Missing." Stalwart, Deputy Minister and Hostage broke down. Timely Writer came to grief with a stomach ache, and Linkage passed up the Derby because his 77-year-old trainer would rather win the Preakness.
As the list of disappeareds grew daily, so did the foolish thought--"We can win the Derby"--seem more reasonable, even fated, for owners of every horse not bolted down on a merry-go-round.
Some people pour over arcane figures full of portent, or something, before announcing which steed is noblest. Others of us are students of conformation, and so we judge the horses according to their musculature and carriage. Any fool can make a poem, but only God can make a fetlock.
So there we were outside Barn 38 just after dawn this morning, anxious to take a peek at the betting favorite, El Baba, when out from the shed row pranced a beautiful animal with a shining brown coat and the look of eagles stamped on a face made distinguished by his long beard.
Only when the goat nibbled at a can were we certain this was not El Baba, who is, it turns out, much taller. "I've always felt Linkage and my colt were the two best 3-year-olds in the country," said El Baba's trainer, Dewey Smith. "Now, with Linkage out, I've got the best one."
By generous estimate, Smith's charge would be third best had all the good ones stayed healthy until the first Saturday in May. Timely Writer and Linkage would blow the doors off El Baba, whose most important victory has been in the Louisiana Derby, the winner of which has not won the Kentucky Derby in 58 years.
El Baba is a big shot, then, the way Vijay Amritraj would be a big shot at Wimbledon if Borg, McEnroe, Connors, Lendl and some others took the two weeks off.
On our tour of the Churchill Downs backside in search of knowledge through conformation, we next perused Cassaleria, who is, I should confess, my personal favorite. I have a soft spot in my heart for one-eyed claustrophobic insomniacs who hate to fly.
Cassaleria lost his left eye in infancy. He is obsessively edgy when confined in a stall, walking in quick circles, refusing even to sleep. He now lives in a stall with open-air sides. This doesn't help on plane trips, where to keep Cassaleria from leaping through a porthole at 39,000 feet they give him tranquilizers, much as some sportswriters treat themselves with ice floating in numbing potions.
As we approached my hero's stall, he did something I've never seen a Derby horse do.
He fell down.
One of his owners, Tom Gentry, heard the ker-plump, ker-rrash, as his Cyclops collapsed. Gentry sprinted to stallside, where, as fast as he went down, Cassaleria popped up with a sprig of straw sticking from behind one ear.
"Just another exciting moment in Derby history," Gentry said with a sigh.
How, I ask, can you resist a one-eyed claustrophic insomniac who can't get out of his own way?
This Derby has something for every contributor to an office pool. The heavily neurotic have Cassaleria carrying their scarves into battle; condo investors have Gato del Sol, which sounds like a Mexico City development; Air Forbes Won is the darling of presidential punsters, and Rockwall, who takes five-hour afternoon naps, is the deep sleeper's hunch bet.
The most impressive animal on the backside this morning was The Red Baron, and he is a Doberman Pinscher who wears a jockey's cap and goggles while tooling around in a golf cart with his owner, Rickie Halbe, an exercise rider.
"Anything I tell him," Halbe said when someone wanted to know what tricks Baron did. "Want to see him bring us that bucket of water?"
He pointed to a 10-gallon bucket half full, sitting 50 feet away.
"He can't do that," someone said.
"Get that bucket," Halbe said, and about 10 seconds later the Baron had latched his jaws over the bucket and carried it back, plunking it down at the feet of the doubter.
Too bad the Baron isn't tall enough to run in the Derby.