04/05/2009 11:00PM

Hope springs even in cruel month


ARCADIA, Calif. - Events always seem to rise to the occasion of the Kentucky Derby, which means April is never boring.

Last Saturday dawned innocently enough, in both L.A and Long Island, where the most important races would be run. A few hours later, I Want Revenge had turned the Wood Memorial into his personal thrill ride, while trainer Jeff Mullins made his own set of headlines. Then at Santa Anita, the anticipated showdown between The Pamplemousse and Pioneerof the Nile was rendered to the pile of speculative fiction.

At the loss of The Pamplemousse because of an injured tendon, as well as the scratch of Pioneerof the Nile's pacemaker, Z Day, Pioneerof the Nile and Garrett Gomez found themselves working without an opening act. Both Gomez and trainer Bob Baffert were hoping for a nice, grown-up pace to give their colt a conventional target at the top of the stretch. Instead, there they were, an 1,100-pound colt pulling a 115-pound jockey to the lead down the backstretch, a long way from home.

"I tried to bottle him up a couple times in the first turn," Gomez said. "But the more I bottled him up, the slower they started going. I even let him clips heels once, thinking maybe he'd soften up a little and come back to me. But once he gets in that rhythm, he does 24's like its nothing. He's got such a long stride, anything slower than that is like trying to break him into a jog."

Gomez wins races like the Santa Anita Derby all the time. It's a Kentucky Derby he needs, and everything he has done with each of the promising candidates he has ridden so far this season has been with the Derby in mind.

"Don't get me wrong," Gomez said. "I was very happy to win the derby today. But I was disappointed that I wasn't able to get done with him what I wanted to get done. What I really wish was that Mr. Zayat had left his other horse in the race, just so the pace would have been honest enough. Otherwise, you feel kind of like a sitting duck on this colt. He never really puts horses away, but he's all right if they come to him slow enough.

"Anyway, no matter what we try to do to get these horses experienced enough to handle the Kentucky Derby, there's nothing like it until they get there," Gomez added. "Like a jockey riding it for the first time. No matter how many races you've ridden, it doesn't mean a thing until you've ridden a Derby."

As for The Pamplemousse, a fond adieu. He was gorgeous in repose, densely muscled, majestic of head, and colored that crowd-pleasing, cloudy gray. In motion he was endlessly entertaining, with an operatic style that dictated terms. Everyone could see that the chink in his armor was a high, pounding stride, with his left fore winging just enough to cause concern. A lesser horse would have been daunted by such action. As it was, maybe five races was more than nature had in mind, and trainer Julio Canani was able to delay the inevitable.

If any lessons are learned from The Pamplemousse's 11th-hour scratch from Santa Anita Derby, they surely would include at least the following:

* Each year, young 3-year-old Thoroughbreds are put under unreasonable pressure to make it to a race on a specific day, specifically, the first Saturday in May. Thus committed, culture of the sport leaves no wiggle room, and pointing a horse hard for that particular date becomes almost as important as participation itself. In the end, it is not the act of running horses in the Kentucky Derby that thins the herd. It is bending to the obsession of getting them there.

* The system of prerace examination can work, if racetrack managements let it. Dr. Jill Bailey, the official veterinarian who initially inspected The Pamplemousse on the morning of the Santa Anita Derby, was no stranger to the colt. She had given him the green light on the day of his two previous races, and both were impressive wins. Such was the significance of this particular horse for this specific race that it was appropriate to call for other opinions - much like the team inspection approach used by the Breeders' Cup - and allow the connections of the colt to be seen as making the ultimate decision.

Part owner Alex Solis II, speaking for the partnership, predicted that The Pamplemousse will return to racing at some point down the line. In this amazing age, some tendon damage can be reversed, but the percentages are still stacked against it. And even if he does return, at some distant date, he will have the same action that could have prompted the trouble in the first place.

Hardened fans can shrug off the loss of a marquee colt like The Pamplemousse as just another casualty of the game. But such animals don't come along very often, and when they do, it is okay to break ranks and cheer.

In the grandstand last Saturday, as early arriving fans learned that the featured derby had just lost its favorite, a twentysomething couple was digesting the news over a portable brunch. He was all logic and ice, patiently explaining what possibly could have happened and why, while resisting any temptation to be disappointed. She listened, but was not persuaded to brush it off as just one of those things.

"I really wanted to see him," she protested.

She was not alone.