If I were forced to take a wild guess at the winner of the 1985 Kentucky Derby, it would not be the Eclipse Award winner, Chief's Crown, or any other prominent members of his generation. My guess would be a colt who has never won a stake and, in fact, has won only one race in his life.
Maybe my judgment is clouded because I lost the biggest bet of my life on Rhoman Rule last fall and I would like to recoup this spring, but he looks like the type who could be a star in the 3-year-old classics.
Unexceptional 2-year-old champs rarely go on to be stars at 3, and Chief's Crown was an unexceptional champion last season. In such an ordinary crop, though, Triple Crown races are not won by late bloomers, but by horses who have shown flashes of stakes quality talent at 2, then blossomed fully the next spring. Swale, Sunny's Halo, Gato del Sol and Pleasant Colony -- the last four Derby winners -- all fit that general description.
So does Rhoman Rule.
The colt had won only once in three New York sprint races when trainer Angel Penna Jr. took a shot and sent him to the Laurel Futurity. Despite his lack of seasoning, Rhoman Rule ran a remarkable race, making a powerful five-wide move on the turn while the eventual winner, Mighty Appealing, sneaked through on the rail. Rhoman Rule finished a narrowly beaten third.
That strong performance made me follow him to the Meadowlands, where I bet a month's pay and Rhoman Rule finished fourth in the rich Young America Stakes.
As he reflected today on that race, Penna realized he had pushed his colt a little too far, too fast. "Sometimes," he said, "you can't stay to the kind of schedule you want because of the timing of the races. I took a risk I normally don't take when I sent him to Laurel, and he ran a wonderful race, so we decided to try the Young America, too. But he didn't get hold of the track at all, and after that race I decided he'd done too much. But now, this year, we're going to start gradually."
Rhoman Rule has been training gently at Hialeah this winter, but Penna said, "It's about time now to put the hammer down and go. I'd like to get a race for him in the next 15 to 20 days. From there, we'll play it by ear. You can't program a horse like he's an IBM. We'll see how he does."
It is certainly possible that Rhoman Rule will turn out to be no more impressive than the ordinary-looking past performances of his 2-year-old season. But I keep remembering the powerful move he made at Laurel, and it suggested that this colt has as much raw ability as Chief's Crown, Mighty Appealing or any other member of his generation.