If Tiffany Ice knows what's good for him, he'll run a lousy race in the Derby Trial Stakes at Churchill Downs Saturday.
A successful performance could make him a victim of the disease that ruins promising 3-year-olds every spring: Derby Fever Syndrome.
Tiffany Ice showed signs of ability in sprints last year, and he ran well in two six-furlong races at Oaklawn Park this spring. Trainer Joe Cantey entered him in the Arkansas Derby, then came to his senses and scratched him on the morning of the race.
"I tried to talk myself into it all week," Cantey said, "but the horse had never raced around two turns and he wasn't ready for it."
So, if a horse isn't fit or seasoned enough to run against moderate competition at 1 1/8 miles, why would his trainer bring him to Churchill Downs with hopes of running him 1 1/4 miles against the best 3-year-olds in America?
That's the Derby Fever Syndrome at work. It affects the brain of trainers and owners, making even astute horsemen like Cantey throw all rationality out the window in their quest to win the Kentucky Derby.
Cantey entered Tiffany Ice in the one-mile Derby Trial, where he will face a dozen rivals of moderate quality. Cantey said, "If he should run really big -- win by himself and run fast -- I have every intention of going in the Derby, although I know it's a lot to ask."
That's putting it mildly. A horse who has never raced beyond a mile and never raced around two turns could not conceivably win the Derby. Secretariat couldn't win with such preparation. Yet it's unfair to single out Cantey for criticism since so many other members of his profession are similarly blinded by the lure of the Derby.
There is a colt in California named Spectacular Love who has only run in two sprints this year, who has as much chance to win the Derby as a weekend jogger has to win the Boston Marathon. But his trainer still says he is pointing him for the Run for the Roses.
The crazy trainer of Spectacular Love is a man named Laz Barrera, the most successful American horseman of the last decade, a two-time winner of the Kentucky Derby. Nobody is immune to D.F.S.
In some cases, entering a horse who doesn't belong in the Derby is a harmless act of futility. But when a good horse comes into this race without the proper conditioning, he is likely to get himself hurt or even permanently ruined. Because he's a good horse, he will keep on trying to run hard even after his body has lost its capacity to withstand the stress of such a gruelling race.
Last year's major victim of the Derby Fever Syndrome was a colt named Vanlandingham, who had won a mile race at Oaklawn Park impressively and would have been the favorite for the Arkansas Derby. A virus knocked him out of that race, and should have knocked him out of the Kentucky Derby.
But Shug McGaughey, one of the best young trainers in America, rationalized his way to Churchill Downs, anyway, and entered Vanlandingham in the Derby even though he hadn't raced for five weeks. The horse paid a heavy price for McGaughey's case of D.F.S. He finished 16th, and he still hasn't made it back to the races.
Tiffany Ice ought to heed this example and inform Joe Cantey that he's going on strike until after the first Saturday in May.