Bill Donovan felt blessed by fortune when his 3-year-old Lost Code developed into a good enough horse to win several stakes in the midwest this summer. His luck hasn't run out yet.
In the most important race of the trainer's life -- Lost Code's meeting with Alysheba and Bet Twice in the $500,000 Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park Saturday -- he appears to be getting a tremendous edge.
It is as if the Goddess of Racing looked down at Donovan and said, "Bill, you've suffered long enough. You've been in this game for 30 years without having a really good horse. But through it all you've maintained your grace and good humor, and now I'm going to reward you. I'm going to set up the Haskell so Lost Code can't lose."
Certainly, no trainer of a front-running horse could ask for a better situation than the one that has arisen in the Haskell. There are plenty of other fast, high-class 3-year-olds who might have put early pressure on Lost Code, but none of them was entered in the Monmouth race.
In the five-horse lineup, there are two other horses with some speed, Born to Shop and Clever Secret, but they don't have enough quality to be factors in the race for long. The horses with class don't have Lost Code's kind of speed.
Although trainer Jack Van Berg maintains that "Alysheba is a fast horse," the colt couldn't even stay close to the relatively slow pace in the Belmont Stakes. Bet Twice, the Belmont winner, is faster than Alysheba, but he runs all his races by sitting just off the pace.
That leaves Lost Code to control the early stages of the Haskell. The front-running colt has won seven races in a row. He's won them even when he has been pressed hard for the early lead. If he is permitted to run the first half-mile or so on Saturday with no pressure, he could run away and hide from his big-name rivals.
Oddly, the lack of speed in the Haskell hasn't been an issue at Monmouth. "Nobody's talked about it at all," Donovan said. The reason may be that Lost Code has been underrated.
Alysheba and Bet Twice dominated the national headlines as they waged their battles in the Triple Crown series, while Lost Code was quietly taking the path of lesser resistance, winning races like the St. Paul Derby and the Ohio Derby. His competition may not have been great, but it was certainly respectable.
Lost Code buried all the horses he faced who came out of the Triple Crown races -- Cryptoclearance, Demons Begone and Avies Copy, among others. The times of his races haven't been spectacular, but neither have those of Alysheba and Bet Twice. Speed handicapping suggests the three rivals possess roughly equal ability.
The one thing that separates them is Lost Code's raw speed. He demonstrated his talents most vividly in his last start, the Arlington Classic. Trainer Wayne Lukas had a speedster, Fast Forward, in the field, and he went out to test Lost Code.
"The jockey was pushing Fast Forward in the first quarter-mile, sticking him after a half," Donovan said. "He headed Lost Code at the first turn, but then Lost Code opened up on him."
On the deep Arlington track, Lost Code raced the first quarter in :23 1/5, the half in :45 4/5, six furlongs in 1:09 3/5 -- a pace that could have been destructive. But instead of folding, he drew away to a decisive victory.
Trainer Luis Olivares, whose colt chased Lost Code in vain, believes the only way to beat the speedster is to find a horse fast enough to run head-and-head with him. He told Donovan, "The next time we meet I am going to have the rabbit. The trouble is finding a rabbit who's fast enough."
There doesn't seem to be such a horse in the Haskell, even if Born to Shop or Clever Secret goes on a suicide mission. Yet, despite all the conditions in his favor, Lost Code is universally viewed as the No. 3 horse in this field, an interloper in the Alysheba-Bet Twice rematch.
Donovan helps foster this feeling with his usual aw-shucks-I'm-just-thrilled-to-be-here posture. He's thrilled to go to breakfast with Jack Van Berg, let alone compete with him for a $500,000 purse.
When a reporter asked him why he had decided to leave the easy pickings in middle America to take on the big boys, Donovan replied, "Take on the big boys? I'm the big boy. They're taking me on."
Then he laughed, to suggest he wasn't serious, and said humbly, "I thought Lost Code deserved a shot."
In a small, evenly matched field, the dominant speed horse has more than a shot. He is the one to beat. If this axiom of handicapping holds true at Monmouth, and the Goddess of Racing keeps on smiling, Bill Donovan will be recognized on Saturday night as the trainer of the leading 3-year-old in America.