11/01/2009 3:58PM

The Derby and the Classic


It has been 19 years since Unbridled became the last Kentucky Derby winner to win the Breeders' Cup Classic, and nobody seems to think that his great-grandson Mine That Bird has much of a chance to end that drought. Yet something keeps stopping my hand from drawing a big red X through his name.


The first four Derby winners who tried the Classic all won it: Ferdinand as a 4-year-old in 1987, beating Alysheba, who returned to win it the next year, then Sunday Silence and Unbridled as 3-year-olds in 1989 and 1990. Since then, Derby winners are 0 for 11 in the Classic, with Silver Charm's second as a 4-year-old in 1998 the best finish in those 11 tries:

Beyond the discouraging historical record, the case against Mine That Bird goes something like this: He's 1 for 7 this year, his lone victory coming in a pace-collapsed Derby on a sloppy track; his two starts since the Triple Crown, a bad third in the West Virginia Derby and a flat sixth in the Goodwood, suggest he might be off form; his two attempts over Santa Anita Pro-Ride have been the worst placings of his career -- the 6th in the Goodwood and a 12th in last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

The more optimistic view is that he needed his last start off a 10-week layoff and is poised to improve; that his career before the Derby is irrelevant because that was the race where he blossomed and turned into a different horse when allowed to make one run from far back; and that his three strong efforts in the Triple Crown mark him as a horse of quality in a Classic where no one is that much faster. (From a speed-figure viewpoint, his Beyers of 105 and 106 in the Derby and Preakness, as a May 3-year-old, put him in the mix to run the 107-to-110 that may well be good enough to win this Classic.)

He has been likened to Giacomo, another 50-1 Derby winner who never won another important race, but I think that's unfair to him: All three of his Triple Crown efforts were better than Giacomo's. Even if you dismiss the Derby itself, his second to Rachel Alexandra in the Preakness was an excellent effort, and who knows what would have happened in the Belmont if his rider hadn't moved way too soon.

In a race where the three favorites (Zenyatta, Rip Van Winkle and Summer Bird) are a mare who despite all her virtues is coming off two slow victories, and two colts who have never raced on a synthetic track, it may pay to go longshot-hunting. Mine That Bird is unlikely, but not impossible.