05/10/2012 3:04PM

Hovdey: Kentucky Derby failure no success at all

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Barbara D. Livingston
Bodemeister went very fast by Kentucky Derby standards, setting the pace and winding up second.

There is plenty of evidence, both eyewitness and digital, attesting to the fact that the chestnut colt I’ll Have Another finished first in the 138th Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs last weekend, finding himself clear of his 19 opponents at the end of the mile and a quarter and officially 1 1/2 lengths in front of the horse who finished second.

Yet to hear the reviews, a casual reader might be led to conclude that the runner-up deserves at least as much credit, if not more, than the winner of the race, typified by Andrew Beyer’s observation that, “To many serious racing fans, however, the most dramatic part of the Derby was the performance of the loser, Bodemeister.”

Welcome, then, to another gathering of the Cult of the Noble Loser, whose members worship a select group of valiant competitors known for gallant efforts in a lost cause (see the Confederacy, Minnesota Vikings, Susan Lucci, et al.). The patron saint of the horse racing wing of the cult is the version of Seattle Slew from the 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup who battled Affirmed early and then Exceller late before losing by a dirty nose. Yes, Exceller won the race.

Admission to the Cult of the Noble Loser is not easy. A combination of qualifying factors must be in place. The candidate must have a loyal and vocal following, especially in the racing media. He must be among the betting favorites in a big-time event, if not the outright choice. And there must be extenuating circumstances, as many as possible, that he did everything in his power to overcome. A razor-thin margin also helps but is not absolutely required.

I was expecting a cult movement to arise around the marathon runner Eagle Poise last month after he was flat-out robbed of at least a dead heat at the end of the 14-furlong San Juan Capistrano at Santa Anita. He seemed to have all the right things going against him – having never won on the grass, being owned in part by a racing writer – and his effort was too good to be called second-best. My only conclusion is that the Cult of the Noble Loser is still not convinced Eagle Poise lost.

Bodemeister earned cult status with a performance that was unique, and especially appealing to the testosterone-charged “all in” approach that pervades not only the culture of fun and games but the wider world as well, as in, “Yes, he’s an idiot, but at least he has the courage of his convictions.”

In the redboard wake of the Derby it was easy to second-guess Mike Smith and Bob Baffert for letting Bodemeister rock and roll on the lead, particularly since the colt had to run his first half-mile several lengths faster than he had in any of his three previous starts at a mile or more. Still, it was a liberating sight, conjuring images of past masters of the fast pace – Bayakoa, Native Diver, Gun Bow, Coaltown.

Halfway through the race a thought bubble appeared over this reporter’s head (besides “Umm, nachos.”). To these eyes, Bodemeister and Smith were doing the best imitation of Spend a Buck and Angel Cordero since their memorable Derby of 1985. Angel ran them ragged from the flag and never looked back, winning by more than five lengths. But then, Spend a Buck was a thoroughly seasoned warrior who knew exactly what to expect. He hit the three-quarters in 1:09.60 – compared with Bode’s 1:09.80 – and kept right on going.

Anyone who left the track that day thinking Spend a Buck beat a bunch of staggering bums eventually had to deal with the fact that Breeders’ Cup Classic winners Proud Truth and Skywalker finished fifth and sixth. Time will tell the tale for the Derby beaten this year as well, but only one of them, besides the winner, was quickly fitted with a pedestal.

Still, is it okay to be a little skeptical? Bodemeister went very fast by Kentucky Derby standards, although there is something to be said for the tactics of getting away from the tangle of 19 opponents as quickly as possible. He went very fast, then he got tired and he lost. He lost, by the way, to a horse who left the starting gate at the same time.

If Bodemeister gets to be part of the Cult of the Noble Loser because of his Derby, what about Rumbo, who ran the fastest final quarter in the history of the race and fell a length short of catching Genuine Risk in 1980? Or Cavonnier, who did everything right in 1996 except catch a glimpse of Grindstone out there past the middle of track and lost by the narrowest nose ever? Or Congaree, who was the only survivor of the maniacal pace in 2001, when Monarchos slingshot past them all.

Lay Congaree’s splits over Bodemeister’s and see what you get. The only difference is that Bodemeister busted loose on a pace no one was crazy enough to follow – other than the doomed Trinniberg – while Congaree was in close range of the pace, racing fifth early but hardly being rated. Bodemeister’s half was 45.39 seconds. Congaree was three lengths and a neck off a 44.86. Bodemeister was in front at the mile mark in 1:35.19. So was Congaree, in 1:35.00. At the finish Bodemeister was 1 1/2 lengths shy of I’ll Have Another’s 2:01.83, while Congaree finished third, 4 3/4 lengths behind the 1:59.97 of Monarchos, while the others on the pace crumbled.

The citing of such raw numbers drives the figure guys crazy, I know. And I will concede that such comparisons do not account for wind speed, track bias, surface condition, or signs of the common zodiac. Just saying, though, one man’s Noble Loser is another’s dead-tired runner-up who had everything his own way and couldn’t hang on. Here’s hoping that Bodemeister goes on to become this generation’s Gun Bow or better. Until then, cult or no cult, there’s another colt out there who beat him on the square.