04/16/2009 12:00AM

Derby tales go whole nine yards


ARCADIA, Calif. - The Balkanization of the Kentucky Derby process has led this year to a favorite from California who has done all his winning in New York, a second choice who began his career in New York but blossomed in California, and a collection of question marks that includes a former second banana who was big in Louisiana, a cluster of sentimental hunch bets, and a splashy gray colt who has won a host of hearts and minds, but not a single stakes event.

Ah, for the good old days, when the Derby came down to a simple collision of giants that could be comfortably described as East meets West. Nashua vs. Swaps. Silky Sullivan taking on Tim Tam. Hill Rise, say hi to Northern Dancer.

"You miss that kind of action, sir?" the head of the CIA was asked in "Three Days of the Condor," as he waxed sentimental about The Great War.

"No," the director replied. "I miss that kind of clarity."

Regional conflicts in horse racing are traditionally manufactured by the media, and they have an excuse. Just as water seeks its weakest point of penetration, the idea of hyping the best colts from California and New York when they met on supposedly neutral ground in Kentucky always was a layup. Even today, as long as there are four time zones in the lower 48 and a definitive North, South, East and West, some version of the Civil War will never really end, especially in the sports section.

This year there are no easy, geographical hooks, which means every writer and every broadcaster will latch onto 75-year-old Tom McCarthy and his bargain basement Blue Grass winner, General Quarters, as their story of the week. Quality Road? Yawn. Dunkirk? We'll get to him later.

Rest assured that at some point, someone will look back at convenient intervals on the calendar, and suddenly discover that there were, in vivid fact, truly exciting Kentucky Derby regional showdowns through the years, and that those years ending in "9s" have been especially fascinating.

In 1969, for instance, the Kentucky Derby was of such

interest that President Richard Nixon and First Lady Pat Nixon were among the throng. Okay, that doesn't mean much today. But take my word for it . . . in 1969, Nixon was The Man. And what Nixon witnessed at Churchill Downs was an old-fashioned East-West knockdown that would make his subsequent trip to China look like a neighborly visit.

Majestic Prince was the ultimate Hollywood glamour boy, a record-priced yearling owned by a rough-and-tumble Canadian lumberman. He was trained by Johnny Longden, a man who had already won the Triple Crown aboard Count Fleet, and was undefeated in six starts, all against California nonentities, each race easier than the last.

Arts and Letters was old-line establishment, a horse of which the founding fathers could be proud. He was bred and owned by Paul Mellon, son of Andrew Mellon, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury and ambassador to Great Britain, and grandson of Thomas Mellon, founder of Mellon Bank. He was trained by Elliott Burch, son of Hall of Fame trainer Preston Burch and grandson of Hall of Fame trainer William P. Burch.

As advertised, the race came down to those two. Arts and Letters and Braulio Baeza grabbed the lead from Majestic Prince and Bill Hartack with a quarter of a mile to run, then Majestic Prince fought back and won by a neck. By today's standards, the hardest thing to believe is that there were only eight horses in the field.

Ten years later, in 1979, the East-West angle had a May-December twist, with 19-year-old Ronnie Franklin on 2-year-old champ Spectacular Bid and the sly veteran Don Pierce, 42, aboard Santa Anita Derby winner Flying Paster.

The inexperienced Franklin was seen as the only possible chink in Spectacular Bid's armor, while Pierce, who rode his first Kentucky Derby in 1960, had played a major role in the emergence of Flying Paster as by far the best of his generation in California. As it turned out, the two colts could have been ridden by Hall and Oates, so dominant was Spectacular Bid. He won by 2 3/4 lengths, with Flying Paster a sobering fifth.

Eventually, Spectacular Bid had the good taste to include the West Coast in his domain, and the idea of losing a race to the gray colt became accepted as inevitable. In 1989, however, fans of New York's Easy Goer could not imagine their hero ever losing the Kentucky Derby to California's Sunday Silence. They still can't, even though the chart continues to blink that unforgiving 2 1/2 lengths at the wire.

They blame the weather (in the high 40s), the track (wet and sticky), the ride (by Pat "Wait All" Day), the traffic on Central Avenue, the price of mint juleps. Alas, one stubborn fact remains - the gates on starting stalls 10 and 13 both opened at the same time that bitter afternoon, and Sunday Silence got the money.

Arthur Hancock bred Sunday Silence and owned him in partnership with trainer Charlie Whittingham and Dr. Ernest Gaillard. Twenty years later, reminders of that fierce rivalry continue unabated, including a conversation a couple of years ago with a casual acquaintance who was impressed Hancock had run a horse in the Derby.

"Oh, 1989, that was Easy Goer's Derby," offered the gent.

"Really," Hancock deadpanned. "I don't remember - did he win that Derby?"

"No, he didn't win," the fellow replied. "It was a muddy track."