04/01/2010 5:13PM

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.