04/06/2010 10:23PM

Wild Things


Now that the dust has settled, the fires are out, and radiation levels have returned to the acceptable range, it is time to ponder the deeper impact of the Santa Anita Derby just run.

All of the easy questions have been answered: Sidney's Candy is the real deal. Lookin at Lucky needs a name change. Victor Espinoza committed a suspendable offense. Garrett Gomez was guilty of a $750 temper tantrum. And Bob and Jill Baffert are the most entertaining buddy cops since Cagney and Lacey. What remains debatable are those everlasting intangibles. Was there malice in Espinoza's heart when he tightened things up on Gomez? Did Gomez, a national champion four years running, flagrantly disregard Bob Baffert's instructions and put Lookin at Lucky in a tough spot? Did Richard Mandella not understand the eligibility rules for the Kentucky Derby in bringing the massive Setsuko to the front of the class very late in the game?

Sidney It is to the everlasting embarrassment of my profession that the scuffle between Gomez and Espinoza over their traffic snarl on the final turn made nearly every lead alongside the runaway win of Sidney's Candy. It was diverting entertainment, but hardly a bench-clearing brawl. There were even apologies accompanying the reports, as if it was an uncomfortable obligation to hype the hissy fit in lieu of proper appreciation of the impressive athletic performance duly witnessed. Sidney's Candy was every bit as dominating as Point Given, Sunday Silence, Winning Colors in winning the historic event, but I've seen better fights in the Home Depot return line. Back in the jocks' room, there was a certain amout of derisive laughter when Espinoza deployed his kung-fu moves on Gomez. Dang, you'd think it was hockey, or figure skating.

As for the Bafferts, the wounds they inflicted on Gomez and Espinoza cut a lot deeper, and they were impossible to ignore. Bob, rising to the defense of his colt, who finished a distance third, took Gomez to the public woodshed like no trainer since Buddy Delp crucified Ronnie Franklin for not winning the Florida Derby easily enough. Baffert usually cools out quickly and with a degree of good humor, but there is always a residue left behind, and jockeys have learned it is the price they sometimes pay for riding the Ferraris that issue from his barn.

Some of that residue may have lingered in Espinoza's system after he was unceremoniously dumped earlier this year from Misremembered, who went on to win the Santa Anita Handicap for the Bafferts in March. As for Jill Baffert's public flogging of Espinoza for his Santa Anita Derby transgressions--both real and inferred--she expressed sincere regrets for the display later that day, while insisting her concern was only for the safety of horses and riders. Still, her passionate tirade had the full attention of just about every major media outlet on the scene to cover the race.

An owner or a trainer should be able to replace a jockey without fear of that jockey going postal down the line. At the same time, there are subtle, non-lethal ways for riders to even the score if they feel there is a score that needs to be evened. Lookin at Lucky, reigning champ and one-time pre-Kentucky Derby favorite, seems to wake up with a bullseye painted on his rump. He has now had three straight races in which his best efforts have been sorely compromised by troubled trips. Gomez clearly reached his frustration point when Espinoza forced him to take up on the turn.

"I've only been in three fights since I've ridden out here," said Gomez, who came West a dozen or so years ago. And who, pray tell, were the others. "Matt Garcia and Pat Valenzuela," Gomez replied.

As for Setsuko, a towering son of Pleasantly Perfect who has now finished second in the Sham Stakes and Santa Anita Derby, he has the look of a Kentucky Derby colt and plenty of support at juicy odds in future books among the hardcore Mandellistas out there. Mandella, though, is an abstract impressionist in a Norman Rockwell world, probing at the roses in his own way in his own good time. But if there is, in fact, a Derby out there with Mandella's name on it, why do they keep spelling it Servis, Tagg, or Woolley?

Back in the days before the Derby mandated a 20-horse field (they call it a "limit," but that's a laugh), the runner-up in the Santa Anita Derby would be able to pack up and head for Louisville without a second thought. Now, he must wait in line, hat in hand, behind the first three finishers at places like Sunland Park, Delta Downs and Meydan, because his bankroll does not necessarily make the grade, even though his ability is beyond reproach.

The last time a true contender was crowded out of the Derby came in 2004, when Rock Hard Ten--who was DQed from a narrowly beaten second to third in the Santa Anita Derby--came up short on qualifying cash. Rocky went on to be second in the Preakness won by Smarty Jones, then came to full flower the following season. If Setsuko is left out in the cold, then ascends to immediate glory somewhere along the Triple Crown trail, he could kickstart a badly needed reform of the Kentucky Derby selection system. That would be a good thing. But Mandella would rather run.