04/01/2010 6:13PM

The Brink


On the backstretch at Santa Anita, in his stall at the Julio Canani barn, The Pamplemousse is still awaiting his call to come over for the Santa Anita Derby. The 2009 Santa Anita Derby.

He was a big, beautiful freak in action, and people were ready to pay good money to watch him run against Pioneerof the Nile in that Derby. But The Pamplemousse was doing business all along on a dicey tendon, and he was finally betrayed by the soft tissue in the days leading up to the race. He was scratched on the morning of the '09 Santa Anita Derby and has not run since, while Pioneerof the Nile won at Santa Anita and went on to finish second to Mine That Bird at Churchill Downs.

That was only the most recent in a long line of dramas surrounding the Santa Anita Derby, which through the years has been more of a Shakespearean soap opera than a horse race. Go back to the 1963 running and wince at the carnage on the first turn, when nearly half the field hit the deck and Candy Spots tiptoed through the fallen to go on and win. Ten years later, Sham probably did not need help to win, but he got it, from entrymate Knightly Dawn, who was pony expressed away from the gate by an aging Milo Valenzuela in order to hound Linda's Chief on the pace. Milo earned his money, and as a result, Sham got to run against Secretariat.

It took a coin toss to decide who would ride Affirmed in the 1978 Santa Anita Derby after Steve Cauthen was suspended. It came up right for Laffit Pincay and wrong for Angel Cordero. With Pincay aboard, the red horse won in a gallop. In 1980, after 17-year-old Pat Valenzuela rode Codex to victory, the press sat in stunned silence as Wayne Lukas and Tartan Farm racing manager John Nerud explained that the winner was not, in fact, nominated to the Kentucky Derby. So there.

More recently, Bob Baffert wondered aloud who was training The Deputy for the 2000 Santa Anita Derby, jockey Chris McCarron or trainer Jenine Sahadi, a crack that prompted Sahadi to walk away from the press conference. Three days later, her colt spoke loudest of all. Brother Derek would have been a good story in 2006 all by himself, raised as he was near a river in Southern Oregon, but the day belonged to his trainer, Dan Hendricks, who was still getting used to life in a wheelchair after a motorcycle accident the year before.

I love the Santa Anita Derby. Always have, from the ancient times of Hill Rise, Lucky Debonair and Majestic Prince, to the more modern incarnations made vastly entertaining because of Sunday Silence and A.P. Indy, Dinard and Best Pal, Free House and Silver Charm, Castledale and Rock Hard Ten. If we don't see the future Kentucky Derby winner in the field (Gato del Sol, Ferdinand and Giacomo were not that obvious), we do see talent that always seems to have a say at some point in the Triple Crown process.

I'm a fan of Sidney's Candy. We have not seen his best race yet. If he beats Lookin at Lucky, he should win. But if Lookin at Lucky should win out West on Saturday, he will do a service to the ongoing debate over racing surfaces that has hijacked much of the national conversation. The way he ran at Oaklawn Park in the Rebel was an inspiration, troubled and making up lost ground on the very good Noble's Promise to nail him on the line. That was on dirt, after Lucky had run on nothing but synthetic. End of discussion, at least for him.

Last year, Pioneerof the Nile tried his best to convince skeptics that synthetically oriented horses could switch to the dirt without losing a beat, and he ran a good race to be second in the Kentucky Derby. Alas, Pioneerof the Nile was rendered no more than a footnote by the supernatural performance of Mine That Bird. The only conclusion that could be drawn from the 2009 Kentucky Derby was that it was, without a doubt, a race that plays by no accepted morality. The first rule of handicapping the Derby, or competing in it for that matter, is, without question, "Forget what you know."

But first you've got to get there, which is where we are on a weekend that also features the Wood Memorial in New York and the Illinois Derby at Hawthorne Race Course. There will be folks holding their breath in all three times zones, praying for just enough effort to win Saturday's battle without losing the May 1 war in Louisville. Just ask the people who were so disappointed when The Pamplemousse could not run. Canani says the colt has responded to therapies and is getting close to a return to training. If he makes it back, it will be a minor miracle. But so is holding together long enough to run in the Kentucky Derby.

Shauna H More than 1 year ago
I, too, have also wondered whatever happened to The Pamplemousse! He was a gorgeous colt, and definitely had my support for the SA Derby and hopefully the KY Derby. Would love an update on his current status, as it seems he hasn't gone back to the track, or on to the breeding shed!
Nathan More than 1 year ago
Wow - was that a prophetic column or what?
Paseana More than 1 year ago
Jay, I'm completely shocked that you didn't mention the Santa Anita Derby circus surrounding Sweet Catomine. She was the M/L fave for the SA Derby, but got caught up in a secret van ride to Alamo Pintado for treatment in the hyperbaric chamber....in the dead of night. Nobody took responsibility, so the poor van driver took the fall, and Canani lost his job with the Wygods. In the immediate aftermath of negative publicity, Marty Wygod said that he was getting out of the game. Sure glad he didn't, because we really need folks like him, but what an incredible soap opera THAT was!
Jay H More than 1 year ago
Jorge -- That was a poorly written sentence and I have fixed it. There was no intention to criticize Milo for simply following instructions in that Derby. I was trying to be cute in reference to Sham, not Milo, and failed. Any sins were committed there by the writer. I had the honor of presenting Milo with his Hall of Fame plaque in a ceremony at Santa Anita, a moment I will always cherish.
Jeff T. More than 1 year ago
Great article Jay... I feel the same way about the SA Derby. It's the best time of the year.
Curt A Vassallo More than 1 year ago
Jay, Knowing UR out there in Calif., & I'm in the East, somebody told me to take note @Hollywood Park, about this "Horse Painting" Business. After duly noting it was April 1st. April Fools Day ? Please tell me, this was a joke ? Please......Is this the Chicago White Sox of Horse Racing ? U know that guy who was very inventive...Please, I beg U...
Jorge More than 1 year ago
Great story, but must you continue to take shots at the Valenzuela family? You recently had your fun with Patrick and now onto the deceased Ismael Valenzuela? Jay! Was your assertion, "Milo earned his money, and for his sins..." necessary? Be a writer not a critic. - Jorge from L.A.
Stephanie More than 1 year ago
What ever became of the Pamplemousse? I thought I had heard/read at the time of injury that he would be out 6-9 MO. I know that is the "stock" answer when a injury occurs to a high profile horse, but it seem like this horse fell off the face of the Earth. It has been, as you pointed out, one year now and not even a workout (that I've seen posted) for The P.
blackseabass More than 1 year ago
The derby does ruin a bunch of every generation of colts better ones yearly. Its the fault of the 20 horse rule. The truth is there isn't 20 colts capable of getting the derby and never was. Consistently 1/2 the derby field never win another. They try to hard when they're getting beat by twenty in the derby and they never recover. Some do but a staggering number don't. A 12 horse field would have enough room for all that were capable plus a few pretenders.
johnny d More than 1 year ago
nice memories jay! Sad about the pamplemouse, thought he would win for fun that day. Maybe Solis can do it this year on alphie, he needs to (earnings). In bafferts comments and my gut dont think lucky will win saturday, will be thinking alphie or caracotado.