Chief's Crown comes into the 111th Kentucky Derby Saturday without the charisma or public acclaim that other favorites have had, but he commands the respect of all the men who train his rivals.
Professional horsemen admire the colt for his consistency, his versatility, his determination, his professionalism. "He's being knocked all the time," said Rhoman Rule's trainer, Angel Penna Jr., "but all he does is win, win, win. He's the classiest 3-year-old in the country."
Michael Whittingham, who trains Skywalker, says, "He's got a spectacular record. How great do they want a horse to be?"
The skeptics, whose numbers have been steadily diminishing, want Chief's Crown to show he is good enough to win a race as tough and competitive as this Derby (5:38 p.m. post time, WJLA-TV-7). He is facing more challenges in this race than he has encountered in his whole career to date. The Derby will be the definitive measure of his talent and, in fact, the quality of this whole equine generation.
After winning the 2-year-old championship and being syndicated for $20 million last year, Chief's Crown has cruised to three straight victories this spring. But all those races were made-to-order situations where he hardly could lose.
On Saturday, instead of coasting in front by himself, he must cope with speedsters who are faster than he is. He must prove that he can go 1 1/4 miles, and the experts are not convinced that he has the pedigree to do it. Moreover, he must face a great depth of competition in the 13-horse Derby field.
"There are at least 10 horses who really belong in the Derby," Penna said. "And there are a lot of consistent horses. Usually the Derby kills a lot of favorites along the way, but almost all the good 2-year-olds from last season are here."
At least six of Chief's Crown's rivals will get solid support from bettors at Churchill Downs and more than 30 tracks across the country (including Pimlico and Charles Town) that are conducting their own wagering on the Derby.
* Rhoman Rule won his first two races as a 3-year-old in smashing fashion, but had his Derby credentials tarnished by a third-place finish in the Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct. But Penna insisted, "I'm not worried about the Wood at all; he couldn't handle the muddy track." Penna is delighted that the weather forecast calls for clear skies and a fast track.
* Proud Truth is the solid stretch-runner in the field. He won the Florida Derby with a late burst of speed, then finished second in the Flamingo Stakes and the Wood Memorial after front-runners set a slow pace in both those races. "This is a real mile-and-a-quarter horse," trainer John Veitch said. "I think I've got a great shot."
* Stephan's Odyssey couldn't beat Proud Truth in Florida, but his Hall-of-Fame trainer Woody Stephens seems to have him in the best condition of his life now. Still, Stephens acknowledged, "I don't think I have as strong a hand this time as I did last year with Swale. But sometimes you've got to make queens beat kings."
* Tank's Prospect, who finished second to Chief's Crown in the $1 million Breeders' Cup race last fall, had an uninspiring 3-year-old campaign until he won the Arkansas Derby in smashing fashion two weeks ago. Trainer Wayne Lukas hopes this is the colt who will break his Derby jinx: he has brought prominent contenders here for each of the last three years and has been soundly beaten each time. But Lukas was plainly worried this morning about the rock-hard condition of the Churchill Downs strip, which he thinks the colt won't like.
* Eternal Prince won the one-mile Gotham Stakes in sensational fashion, but looked a bit less overpowering as he won the 1 1/8-mile Wood. Even if the 1 1/4-mile Derby distance proves to be too far for him, part-owner George Steinbrenner promises he won't fire the jockey, the trainer or the horse.
(Spendthrift Farm also owns a piece of Eternal Prince, and because Spendthrift's president Brownell Combs owns Rhoman Rule, the two colts will be coupled in the Derby wagering).
* Spend A Buck ran the most impressive prep race of any Derby contender, narrowly missing Secretariat's world record for 1 1/8 miles as he ran away with the Garden State Stakes. It was a performance which impressed the betting public more than the experts: Spend A Buck was cofavorite with Chief's Crown at 9 to 5 in the advance wagering at Churchill Downs today and at New York City's Off-Track Betting establishments.
The rest of the field consists of Irish Fighter, Encolure, I Am the Game, Floating Reserve, Skywalker and Fast Account.
While racing fans might speculate at length about the relative merits of Chief's Crown and his rivals, it is possible that this Derby will be decided more by tactics than by the raw ability of the horses. It poses some fascinating questions of strategy. "The whole key to this race," said Spend A Buck's trainer Cam Gambolati, "is who tries to do what in the run to the first turn."
Eternal Prince and Spend A Buck are habitual front-runners who figure to run their best if they get the early lead.
Will their jockeys, Richard Migliore and Angel Cordero Jr., engage in a speed duel trying to get to the front? If they do, and cover the half mile in 46 seconds or so, they could kill each other and anybody else who is close to them.
But if one of the jockeys tries to take back, enabling the other to control the pace, the whole complexion of the Derby could be changed. It might force Chief's Crown to make a move earlier than jockey Don MacBeth wants, for if the Chief got into a head-and-head duel with either of these tough front-runers, he might be vulnerable in the late stages of the race. In any event, his talents will be tested as they have never been tested before. 'Valentine' Wins Oaks Associated Press
LOUISVILLE, May 3 -- Fran's Valentine stayed close to the pace, took the lead with about an eighth of a mile remaining and won the $182,100 Kentucky Oaks for 3-year-old fillies today at Churchill Downs.
Foxy Deen, a 40-to-1 shot, closed to finish second, ahead of pacesetting Rascal Lass. Folk Art, the 3-2 favorite, was never in contention.
Fran's Valentine, ridden by Pat Valenzuela, carried 121 pounds over the 1 1/8 miles in 1:50 to beat Foxy Deen by three-fourths of a length. Rascal Lass was another head back.
Fran's Valentine paid $8 in earning a purse of $118,365.