02/19/2010 12:00AM

Defying logic, Derby rookies do well


ARCADIA, Calif. - It is getting on toward late February, that ruthless runt of months, and I know I should be wallowing in all things pertaining to the Kentucky Derby. I should be hammering away at all these preps, named for Mr. Hutcheson, Mr. Lewis, and Mr. Davis, and spinning the results to suit the ultimate story line, which is that there must be 20 horses in the Kentucky Derby field, that they all deserve to be there, but only three or four truly belong.

No, this is not an elaborate hypocrisy. This is just good, solid, Chamber of Commerce thinking. What is good for the Kentucky Derby is good for the rest of the game, because lord knows no one pays much attention to horse racing the rest of the year. In fact, at this point in the process there is an almost sacred obligation among writers covering racing to gin up a top 10 or 20 Derby contenders, if only to have something to do every Monday. I hate Mondays.

Texas colleague Gary West, bless his armadillo boots, actually compiled a top 100. This was a selfless gesture, giving a moment in the sun to horses and folks who would remain otherwise unknown, including No. 66, Asphalt, about whom West noted, with tongue in cheek, that "his best efforts may be confined to the turf." Not a snide word about synthetics.

I continue to labor under the painful reality that figuring out the Kentucky Derby winner this far in advance - or even by the last Saturday in April - is a hopeless task, tantamount to the 3-year-old guessing what's in that big rattly package under the Christmas tree, and that my time can be better spent (the fronds on the queen palm out front need trimming, for one thing). Unless I am mistaken, chaos usually reigns, and for most of the past decade the Derby winner has come out from behind a bush never before shaken.

Every single winning owner since the year 2000 was winning a Derby for the first time, and good for them. Spreading around this kind of wealth is a socialism everyone should endorse. At the same time, seven of the 10 winning trainers since 2000 were actually starting their very first horse in the Derby, a list that comprises Neil Drysdale, Barclay Tagg, John Servis, John Shirreffs, Michael Matz, Rick Dutrow, and Chip Woolley.

This trend is hard to fathom. It's not like these guys didn't know about it. The Derby usually makes all the papers. And come to think of it, how dare they? We have been raised with the firm belief that winning a Kentucky Derby is a complex, technical endeavor that requires a combination of experience, foresight, stout backing, and as much luck as one can muster, in good conscience. It also helps to have a fast horse, or a nickname like Sunny Jim. But to win it on your first try seems almost sacrilegious.

By this weird reading of the tea leaves, the 136th running of the Kentucky Derby all but belongs to race rookie Bruce Levine, if he can get Remsen winner Buddy's Saint all the way to the starting gate. But the same rookie juju holds true for Mike Machowsky, who trains Robert Lewis winner Caracortado, or Tony Dutrow, who has still got shooters even with the injury to Holy Bull winner Winslow Homer.

And those are just a few of the trainers without Derby history who have horses who have been noticed. Bear in mind it was about at this time last year, in a corner of these United States not exactly known for producing classic runners, Chip Woolley was training Canadian 2-year-old champion Mine That Bird at Sunland Park with all the fanfare of a one-float parade. Woolley was also getting ready to bust up the lower part of his right leg in a late February motorcycle wreck that left him on crutches throughout Mine That Bird's Triple Crown campaign, and beyond. Being about a year late and $103.20 short, which is what Bird paid to win, I figured it couldn't hurt to ask Woolley the name of his best 3-year-old.

"I don't have one," said Woolley, who is limping less these days. "Maybe things will look up between now and Derby time, but there's nothing right now. We probably could have chased a little harder, but we just haven't found what we're looking for."

Mark Allen, co-owner with Leonard Blach of Mine That Bird, was modestly active at yearling sales last year but bought nothing of an age or quality that could turn immediately into another Cinderella Derby horse, as they did in 2008 with Mine That Bird. Woolley has gone back to reality at Sunland this winter, where he has won with five of his starters, although with no damage done yet at stakes level.

Woolley said Mine That Bird is still turned out at Allen's Double Eagle Ranch near Roswell, where he has been putting on weight in anticipation of a 4-year-old campaign. That leaves the trainer, for now, to be the wise old Kentucky Derby hand and pass on advice for those rookies who might descend upon Louisville this spring, wide-eyed and full of trepidation. He was asked what advice he would give anyone starting their first Derby horse.

"Enjoy every minute of it, and just do what got you there," Woolley replied. "And if you're lucky enough to win, hold on for the ride."